Rotimi Babatunde; Writer, Waiting to Win
His name is Rotimi Babatunde. You won’t notice him if you see him in a crowd but for his near Ola Rotimi looks. Even that can be conveniently ignored as looks are not indelible marks of ingenuity. It takes some patience to listen to him too because of a tendency to stutter. An attribute you could link to the hypothesis that he is probably on the point of choking from the many creative ideas struggling to find expression in him. If you mention his name in most art and literary circles in Nigeria, the chances of drawing a blank are quite enormous. Except in Ibadan, where he has been hibernating for some years now, Mr. Babatunde is hardly known as a writer to be paid any serious attention. Even at that, beyond the small circle of writers, drinkers and smokers that he is wont to be found in their company, he is just another guy on the streets of Beere, Beyerunka or Inalende. Ironically however, this young man is ending up as one of the strongest up coming writers of the current generation. That is especially true if the recognition he has garnered in the international literary circuits is anything to go by.
Before you accuse me of over-sweetened tongue or honeyed pen, let me give you an inkling of what makes the foregoing introduction near-mandatory. In 1997 his ‘Oxbow Lakes’, a poem, in Daybreak on the Land (Library of Poetry, Owing Mills MD.) was published. In 1999 his ‘Love Song’, a poem, in A Volcano of Voices: A Ford Foundation/ Association of Nigerian Authors Joint Project by Kraft Books Ltd., Ibadan, was published. In the same year, his piece of fiction ‘the Fall of Icarus’, caught the attention of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s World Service, London, and it was not just aired, it won a prize money. In 2000 ‘Death’s Last Dance’, another fiction of his was anthologised in Little Drops of Spectrum Books Ltd., Ibadan. In 2001, ‘Elements’, a sequence of poems (in both the English originals and the German translations done by Jan Wagner) in Die Aussenseite des Elementes No. 11 (NPAM, Berlin), was published. ‘A Shroud for Lazarus’, a play, was featured as a staged reading at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs, Sloane Square, London (Director: Topher Campbell) in 2004. In 2005 ‘Auto-da-fe’, a short story of his made it to Fiction on the Web.
He was a Fondazione Pistoletto award recipient for participation in the Unidee in Residence programme for artists at Universite des Idees, Cittadellarte, Biella, Italy in 2007. He was sponsored to participate at the Teaterdargana Festival of theatre in Stockholm, Sweden by The Swedish Institute and Riksteatern in November 2006. He was one of the three authors short listed for Nigerian Writer of the Year award by The Future Awards with Chimamanda Adichie and Tolu Ogunlesi in 2006. He received a Fiction Grant from The Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, Shelter Island, New York in February 2006. He participated in Beyond Borders: A Festival of Contemporary African Writing, Kampala, Uganda, sponsored by the British Council in October, 2005. He participated in The Royal Court’s International Residency for playwrights at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, U.K. in 2004. He was a fellow at The Kate and George Kendall Writer’s Fellowship, The Macdowell Colony, New Hampshire, U.S.A in 2002. He had Residence Fellowship at the Ledig House International Writers Program, the literary programme of the Art/Omi Foundation, New York, U.S.A in 2001. He won 1st Prize in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Meridian Tragic Love Story Competition in 1999. He came 2nd in The 22nd International Student Play script Competition organized by the World Student Drama Trust, London in 1998. He was short listed for the Association of Nigerian Authors Drama Prize in 1997. In the same 1997, he won 3rd Prize in the North American Open Poetry Competition with Oxbow Lakes.
In October 2008, his play, Elddopet, translated into Swedish and initially commissioned by the Swedish Art Council opened, went on tour of Sweden in not less than sixty performances and closed in Stockholm in December 2008. The play was directed by Lars Melin and translated into Swedish by Eva C Johansson. The cast included Mans Clausen, Harald Lonnbro and Yankho Kamwendo. Scene design was by Charlotta Nylund and Petra Weckstrom was the play’s producer. In the words of Petra the producer of the play, it would play to “approximately 5,500 Swedish kids between 10 and 12 years old!” That is nothing if not remarkable. Before then he had been flown to Sweden to see the premier and he came back quite impressed and overwhelmed. He was impressed by what the Swedish Art Council was doing but very well depressed that the chances that the Nigerian system can give similar opportunity to writers in the land is as remote as dogs snacking on kola nuts.
He was contacted to do Elddopet in 2005. That was shortly after his participation in the Royal Court Theatre’s International Residency for playwrights in London. It was through the Residency that the Riksteatern, the Swedish National Theatre, got to know of his work and became interested in commissioning a play from him for their World Playwrights Project. There were other plays in the project which were written by writers from Argentina, Mexico and Kenya.
Asked how he took the offer? Did it have any ring of initial difficulty compared to other things he had done? He says “Every new work presents its own special challenges. Before writing ‘The Bonfire of the Innocents’ which was translated into Swedish as Elddopet, I had never created any play for a young audience so I was venturing into a new dramatic territory. The Swedish tradition for such plays is seen by many as possibly the most adventurous in the world, with issues like divorce, death, alcoholism, sexual violence and similar down-to-earth themes routinely addressed. In Sweden, plays for youth are not seen as inferior to those for adults; if anything, they are taken more seriously because that is probably what their theatre is most respected for. So, not only did I have to understand the unique demands of writing a play for a young audience, I also had to write one for the National Theatre of a country with a sophisticated critical tradition in that dramatic sphere”.
Knowing that most playwrights always have something against the interpretation of their work by a director other than themselves, one tried to sound out Rotimi Babatunde on his impression of the premier of his play he went to Sweden to see. Contrary to wildly held belief he says he was extremely satisfied by it and that “…the production was faithful to the play’s script but not in a slavish way. Theatre is a collaborative art and the creative contribution of others involved in the production was strong and pleasantly surprising, without undermining the essential vision of the play. The production crew had done comprehensive research for the work and it showed in the quality of the performance. Even the haircuts of the actors were done exactly as it would have been in Nigeria. To the credit of Riksteatern, the research was done without assistance from the Nigerian Embassy in Stockholm, despite repeated attempts of the theatre to liaise with the embassy. Having a Nigerian play going across the length and breadth of Sweden in a tour of over sixty performances is not something that happens very often, if ever before now, but it seems our diplomats in Stockholm just do not care about how Nigeria is being presented in the country they were posted to work in.”
In 2006, the British Royal Court Theatre commissioned him to write a play in commemoration of its 50th anniversary. In view of this and other similar instances in his writing career, is he ever going to write a non-commissioned play? Most other young writers are also looking for such opportunities and may not be able to kick start their career without such a boost. He insists that he has written works that were not commissioned before and that getting a commission makes projects such as creative writing convenient as it “…helps to know the context in which a play will have its first presentation and it is reassuring to know beforehand that the play one is writing will be staged. A substantial proportion of plays written in countries with professional theatre cultures are commissioned. This is not a new development. Shakespeare wrote for a specific theatre and Chekhov wrote his most important plays for a specific director, Stanislavski. Coming closer home, don’t forget that Wole Soyinka’s first major play, A Dance of the Forests, was specifically written for Nigeria’s independence celebration”.
He was challenged on the possibility of the fact that writing a commissioned play gives you a feeling of being boxed in by the terms of reference of the funding organisation and he disagrees tactically, “A playwright who understands the nature of his or her art will instinctively know how to subvert and transcend such restrictions, if there are any. For example Wole Soyinka used his play, A Dance of the Forests, to criticize and lampoon the illusions of the very politicians who paid for the play’s production. Most commissions though, do not have such reactionary expectations and the terms of reference allow the playwright an ambit so wide that it will be inappropriate to label them as restrictive”.
It is a good thing that he is recognised outside the shores of Nigeria for his literary competence but is he not bothered that Nigerians living in Nigeria have never been able to see any of his plays just as they have not been able to see nor read that of many others like him who are striving to keep the art going? He is optimistic. Carefully so optimistic. He says, “They will, hopefully. I write essentially about the Nigerian experience. If audiences from other countries can connect with the plays I write, then those in Nigeria should find it easier doing the same. So it is logical to think that it is only a matter of time before my work starts getting performed here. There is no need to force it though and end up with a sloppy production. The best approach is to wait for the right opportunity and the right context”.
So, how does he think this would impact on the development of an (permit one to say so) already stunted live theatre environment? How would …? and he cuts in. “Making such predictions is beyond the immediate mandate of any playwright. Yes, our so-called globalised world is so connected that distance doesn’t matter as before, but having one’s work presented first in one’s country is still the ideal scenario. Reality though imposes other imperatives. Between having one’s play premiered abroad and not having it staged at all, every playwright will choose the former. And theatre is not the only sector where the outside world engages with our best talents more robustly than those in Nigeria do. In recent times, the bulk of notable novels from Nigeria have been published abroad. Our best brains are more likely to be lecturing in foreign universities than at home. Our best footballers ply their trade in European leagues, not in Nigeria. This is not because of a lack of patriotism. And, if one is to be realistic, I don’t see how this situation will change until we put our house in order. Resuscitating the glorious days of live theatre in Nigeria is a collective venture, not an individual one”.
…And you think this will help what is happening on the Nigerian theatre stage? I mean, in terms of interpreting our collective theatrics as the likes of Kola Ogunmola, Hubert Ogunde, Wole Soyinka and Osofisan to mention a few (don’t know how many more are left anyway) have done?
“The economic downturn after the seventies affected dramatic writing severely, in many ways far more severely than the other genres of literature. You need a vibrant theatre industry, from good venues to well-paid actors and spectators who feel secure enough to venture outside their homes, to get the best out of the rich pool of dramatic talents we have in Nigeria. You asked me what I think is at present happening on the Nigerian live theatre scene? There are a few brave individuals still trying to keep the embers of live performance glowing but frankly, almost nothing is happening. Almost nothing. And this is regrettable for a country that, in the space of just a few decades, produced playwrights as renowned as Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark and Biyi Bandele”.
At this very moment, he is on an art residency as a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, Italy, for a period of four months. The Bellagio Center lies on a hilly peninsula adjacent to Lake Como, two hours north of Milan. Some place to challenge the Muse if you ask me. I tried to pry out of Rotimi, what it feels like to be there and, in his usual mode he complained about how the organisers were attending to him with undeserved seriousness. He wonders what they would do if they found out that he is the same guy to be found in some drinking joints in some unknown places in Ibadan engaged in sometimes meaningless beer talk just to exercise the jaw.
The residency program that he is involved in offers influential scholars, artists, writers, scientists, policymakers and other professionals from around the world the opportunity to pursue ideas and to engage others in their work. According to the official website of the Foundation, “The conference program leverages ‘convening power’: the ability to bring notable and diverse participants from around the world together to share ideas, to debate and to collaborate.
The Foundation has operated the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy since 1960. In leaving the property to the Foundation, the previous owner mandated that it be used “for purposes connected with the promotion of international understanding.” A group of distinguished scholars was convened to discuss and advise on the land's usage and function. It was their view that the property should be a refuge for contemplation, writing, and purposeful discussion -- a place where the world’s leading thinkers could be free from everyday demands. In addition, they proposed the Center host targeted conferences, with the goal of arriving at important conclusions concerning the state of knowledge in a given field, and plotting paths for future development”.