Hubert Ogunde Entrances and Exit

Written by Wole Soyinka and first published on May 12, 1992 in Daily Sketch

With good reason, the expression "making an entrance" finds frequent usage in social parlance. It is a usually reliable Index of personally, even character. Entrances, even for the non-theatre buff therefore provide a fascinating field of observation. For the theatre-goer, however unconsciously, the moment and manner of the performer's entry (but specifically one of star quality) is what is most eagerly awaited, seized upon and savoured. Exit is subject to events beyond the control of the actor-applause or rejection, excitation, the tumult of crowds or the emotional intervention of catharsis. The actor (in real life or on stage) can only react to the manner of response.

Some element of preparation also goes into exits of course, but the very choice of a form of exit depends on far too many other factors. Even the famous "sweeping exit", an attempt at disdain, can be a salvage operation for an unexpected, probably unpalatable response. With the entry however, the actor is almost totally in control. Psyched up, meticulously studied, the actor sums up his presentation in advance of the rest of action, no matter the latter variations even contradictions of the original image. The entry, we may propose, is the message. It leaves its imprint, however vestigial, throughout the duration of of performance, like a transparency over the retina, through which the rest of the offering unfolds - Louis Armstrong, John Gielguid, Lawrence Olivier, Anikulapo-Kuti, Edith Piaf, Amalia Rodriguez, Duro Ladipo, Kola Ogunmola .... Hubert Ogunde.

Like many theatre goers, the strategy of the "entrance" has certainly held my interest. Consider some contrasts among Ogunde's contemporaries, along with their personalities. Take Duro Ladipo. That theatre stalwart's eruption on stage was sheer personification of an electrical charge - sooner or later he would have to play the role of "Songo"; his other roles became, in retrospect, mere rehearsals towards that ultimate apotheosis. And he became his "role". Not that Duro Ladipo (actor) was ever totally absent, but what one witnessed was the recognisable actor heightened to the nth degree, n' being the maximal possible intensity of the role in question.

Or again, Kola Ogunmola, another cruel void in Nigeria arammaturgy. Kola entered the stage on apologetic footpads, gradually taking possession of the entire space. He formalised his interpretation into mobile mask, the delicate manipulation of which then became his essential role; beneath it all, the contemplative yet ribald clown that was Kola Ogunmola could be usually discerned, enjoying himself hugely while issuing solemn asides on the absurdity of the social world. Both men made enemies. Both were indeed bitter rivals of each other, a strange situation since their gifts were in totally different directions. I was often cast in the unwilling role of arbiter (or, in the end, abrupt judge) in the artistic intrigues that appeared to surround their existence. I thought often, at such times, how it was that Hubert Ogunde passed serenely through such passionate shoals. The selection of Ogunde's troupe for any one festival or the other, representing the nation, never drew quite the amount of murky responses as, for instance, the nomination of some other troupes - such as the two just named - or indeed, one or other of the so-called "contemporary" or "academic" theatre.

In a world, or more accurately, micro-world, whose enduring characteristic can most charitably be described as pettiness, cheap cynicism and vulgarity, it is tempting in this context to consider the late Hubert Ogunde as an exceptionally lucky man. In the main, he appeared to have existed, and fulfilled his mission within an aura of inviolability. Certainly he was never a lasting victim of the current of envy and denigration which appears to be the lot of today's artiste, especially in the performing media. Miraculously, he created and maintained a charged, creative enclave of his own, whose interior serenity was a contradiction to the vibrant, pulsating exterior that tore down the artificial boundaries of West African countries at will, and blithely evaporated the mini-national boundaries within Nigeria, from the moment of entry of the maestro in any character disguise, or the lilting appeal contravailto voice.

Of course he never attempted to obliterate the frontiers between him and authority - be these of the colonial or later "independent" dispensations - and this indeed was a measure of the man. But all other frontiers - there his art preceded him like a flag at the end of a charging lance. From Dakar to Yaounde and Kano to Abidjan, somewhere out there, faded by time and weather but not in the memories of his audience still float poster graffiti, lyric and motior, in ages of the stage magician from the heartland of the Nigerian Muse, a bewildering amalgam of myth, morality, history and the politics of human assertion. One moment he would domesticate the exotic world of Arabian nights, the next it was a head-on indictment of colonial inhumanity and a ringing summons for resistance.

Fashions came and vanished. "Aesthetic" theories in art and politics swept all around him but never did engulf him. He had anticipated both theory and practice; Hubert Ogunde remained on course. Was this perhaps what rendered him immune from the acerbity, intrigues and mutual denigration that accompanies the art of his contemporaries? I have often wondered what was his secret. Naturally, his polygamous ethos came to mind, its mandatory balances and sensitivity. But others have tried that route and failed. By the very strategies that inform an itinerant operation? Again, others have been subjected to that paradoxical infliction where the actual artistic products are relegated to the role of mere starting-block for the fabricated artists persona. A unique esprit de corps then, one that has been miraculously embraced by each one of his troupers? Hubert Ogunde was not immune from the frustrations of troupe defections. He was no staid, "neutered" domestic or political being, and so he was not without enemies. Somehow, despite it all, Ogunde skirted the elastic boundaries of the quagmire of personalised speculations, disgruntled swipes, manipulative schemes and mind numbing intrigues. Even defections from his troupe were "civilised" exits, providing little or no dramatic fodder for scurrilous pens.

So perhaps it was simply a question of leadership style. Perhaps. But then we have also witnessed the collapse of "communalistic" experiments of the entertainment world even here, and the abandonment of such progressive experiment by would-be emulators. The personality then? Was it not ultimately an attribute of Hubert Ogunde's personality? Of both the physical and invisible aura? The secret so memorably, so constantly, in his very stage entrance. This was no Duro Ladipo bulling in from the wings and investing the stage with a primal force, nor an Ogunmola, the puckish mask, reducing moral gravity to jeers and tears within one gesture, No, Ogunde made his entry like a courtesan, not wooing, simply flinging open the door, his gap-toothed smile winking: "come into my magic parlour." His was the art of the ring-master.

From his early day's when, in heroic, swashbuckling poses, he took on brace after brace of unlikely opponents, much too shapely and luscious to be truly villainous, or succumbed to, then overcame other worldly denizens on his perilous route to heaven; onwards to the later, weightier drama of strife and sacrifice, of oppression and resistance, Hubert Ogunde's stage entry, a study in lyric sinuousnes, signalled the opening of the none, this vital force of creativity that avoided stridency. His audiences loved it, awaited that moment and applauded it. And I believe it was a true expression of the inner man, the storm, but simply flinging wide the portals of illusion. His was an uninhibited, eclectic world of make-belief. His incursion, for example, into the esoteric world of Yoruba culture was not so much for its elucidation, not for its mystic armoury but for its "marvellous". (Compare again Duro Ladipo's masterful, possessive peregrinations within the same numinous territory Hubert Ogunde revealed to us the art of "wonderment" the boundlessness of transformation.

The lucky ones among us recall those strung-on curtains, hand-pulled to reveal a chorus line swinging lithe legs to the "opening glee", from Enugu to Kano, Kaduna to Abeokuta. My induction took place in the medium of a school hall, on the wooden planks of ancient Lisabi Hall in Ebute Metta and the now vanished Glover Memorial Hall. Such would recall the infectious entry of the ringmaster himself, project their memory through to the rousing "closing glee" as the same visible stage hand ran across the stage with the curtain, folding away the parable, morality or epic tale. That ancient Glover Hall is not preserved. When torn down it was derelict, yes, but it was history. We tend to preserve nothing that structures and concretises heritage for ensuing generations. Others would have built around, and!above such landmarks, shored up the crumbling walls, stuck a plaque on it, a roll-call of honour, with Hubert Ogunde prominently embossed, led wide-eyed schoolchildren through its musty spaces.

The faded poster, the handbills preserved under glass cases, the amateur photographs and the hidden echoes within the cracks, planks and rafters; may be worth little beside chrome and glass imitation skyscraper; they are priceless in their power of evocation of history and heritage, in their potential for the release of creativity and the imagination. Of the thousands of entrances Hubert Ogunde must have made in his long career, none, obviously, attempted the weighted poignancy of his final exit. The former were a constant promise and revelation. They have created, at least for this writer, a delectable nostalgia that will be savoured in secret moments, or even in company, when a public gesture, a sudden flash, brings back memories of the vital, creative force that once bestrode our boards, transcending barriers of languages and cultures. This exit diminishes us ultimately, yet it is also, paradoxically, a cue for the more constant evocation of those magic entrances that transformed the lives of many, a self-renewing, presence that will endure long after the handbills and posters have browned and faded with age.

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