Sir Hubert Ogunde was born on July 16, 1916 in Ososa, near Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, Nigeria to Jeremiah and Eunice Ogunde. His hometown is Ile-Apena, also in Ogun state. Ogunde’s father was a Baptist while his mother and maternal grandmother were followers of the African traditional religion. However, after Ogunde’s birth, Eunice Ogunde converted to Christianity. Ogunde was raised and taught about African culture and demagogues; he also lived briefly in his grandfather’s compound where he was exposed to Ifa and Sango (Yoruba traditional gods of divination and thunder respectively) celebrations and so he ended up being greatly influenced by both the Christian and traditional African religion.
Ogunde’s education spanned between 1925 and 1932. He was admitted into Saint John’s primary school, Ososa at the age of nine for his elementary education. After this period, he left for Saint Peter’s Faji School in 1928 where he was till 1930. He attended Wasinmi African School, Ijebu-Ode between 1931 and 1932 and his graduation there marked the end of his formal education. From 1933 to 1941, Ogunde was a school teacher at Saint John’s Primary school, Ososa and he taught elementary school for eight years. He was also a dedicated church organist who organized his first band as a teacher at Oke-Ona United School, Abeokuta. During this period, he developed his interest and honed his special skills for opera and folklore.
While on a holiday in Ibadan, Ogunde joined the Nigeria Police Force in 1941 where he was eventually appointed as a constable. In 1943, the police force posted him to Ebute-Metta where he joined an African initiated white garment church. In 1945, he created an amateur drama group called the African Music Research Party. Ogunde soon resigned from the police force in order to focus on acting and also due to what he considered a misconduct of the colonial regime within the ranks of the force.
It should also be noted that Ogunde married twelve wives. His first wife, Adesewa, was probably his most famous wife as she played prominent roles in some of his performances especially in the 1960s. Unfortunately, she died in a ghastly vehicle accident on the way to a performance in 1970.
Ogunde’s first contact with performance art was actually as a young member of Egun Alarinjo and Daramola Atele’s travelling theatre group during his elementary school days. However, his theatre began under the patronage of the church in 1944; he produced his first folk opera, The Garden of Eden and Throne of God which was commissioned by the Church of the Lord, Lagos in order to aid contributions to a church building fund. The play meshed realism and dramatic action in the acting, singing and dancing; a pioneering approach at that time which fueled to the play’s success. At the Alake of Abeokuta’s (prominent King in Ogun State) request, Ogunde performed The Garden of Eden again at the Ake Centenary Hall. The success of this encouraged him to write more operas and so he wrote and co-directed Africa and God in 1944, Isreal in Egypt in 1945 and Nebuchadnezzar’s Reign and Belshazzar’s Feast in 1945. Many of Ogunde’s early works frowned on colonialism, such as his much talked about 1945 opera, Worse than Crime, which was a political play infused with Yoruba dance and ancient folk songs.
Ogunde’s African Music Research Party which would be later known as Ogunde Theatre Party was the first contemporary professional theatre company in Yorubaland. Ogunde’s group was distinguished by his promotional approach such as advertisements and posters and his use of a proscenium as opposed to the traditional round stage. In November 1945, he wrote Strike and Hunger, inspired by the general strike by the labor unions and later on went professional with the production of his Tiger’s Empire which premiered on March 1946. Tiger’s Empire condemned colonial rule in the pre-independence era and marked the first time in Yoruba Theatre that women were billed to appear in a play as professional artists. Following the success of this play, he wrote Darkness and Light and Devil’s Money and he will also write the opera Herbert Macaulay as a tribute to life and death of the late nationalist.
In 1947, Ogunde and his wife, Adesewa, travelled to Lagos to make contacts for the promotion of his shows in England. Though they were unsuccessful in making the right contacts, they seized the opportunity to take waltz and tap dance classes which Ogunde would later infuse with the traditional Batakoto dance and Yoruba Epa dance. In 1948, Ogunde went on a tour to the major Western Nigeria cities with his group and also had stops at Abeokuta, Ibadan, Oyo, Ede, and Ogbomosho. However, he had clashes and encounters with the police when he toured Northern Nigeria due to the political context of Worse than Crime and Tiger’s Empire. Ogunde’s first tour outside Nigeria was not well received by Ghanaians and this was largely due to their inability to comprehend the Yoruba language and the style of his opera. This obvious disconnect caused a setback to Ogunde’s reputation and finances. An unfazed Ogunde returned to Ghana with another variety program called Swing the Jazz which became a huge success and redeemed his reputation. Shortly after Ogunde introduced English language into his plays as dialogue in 1950, Ogunde wrote and performed Bread and Bullet which was based on a coal miners’ strike in Enugu which resulted in the shooting of 22 people.
In the 1960s, Ogunde produced two important plays: Yoruba Ronu (meaning Yoruba people ponder) and Otito Koro (meaning truth is bitter) which echoed the political events in Western Nigeria leading to the the state of emergency announcement in 1963 by S.L Akintola who had broken away from the western region’s Action Group to form the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). Ogunde’s company was banned from the region due to this political upheaval for two years. In reaction to this, Ogunde produced Otito Koro to protest against the injustice of his ban. The ban was lifted in 1966 by Nigeria’s new military government and in that same year, the Ogunde Dance Company was formed. With the birth of the Western Nigeria Television, Ogunde was able to reach a broader audience without travelling and produced the plays Ayanmo (meaning Karma) and Mama Eko (meaning Lagos Mama) for an eager television audience.
In 1967, Ogunde’s Theatre had grown into a formidable institution and he was asked to represent the Nigerian Government at Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada. The theatre also performed at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York city. In 1968, Ogunde’s theatre was invited to perform at the International Llangollen Eisteddfod, North Wales and Fairfield Hall, Croydon, Great Britain. Ogunde also produced Ire Olokun (meaning goodness of the river goddess) and Keep Nigeria One. In 1969, Ogunde took a 45 member dance troupe abroad and performed extensively in Britain and Europe with a special production called Oh Ogunde and also produced Obanta (first king in the Ijebu Kingdom who reigned in the 14th century) and Ogun Pari (meaning the War is over). Later on that year, Ogunde will also perform at the Municipality Milano, Italy.
In the late 1970s, Ogunde joined the trend of film making and did an adaptation of one of his stage plays, Aiye (meaning life). The film premiered in 1980 and addressed Yoruba spirituality, witchcraft and traditional notions of light and darkness. After this was Jaiyesimi (meaning let the world rest), a sequel to Aiye followed by Aropin N’Tenia (meaning Humans will think the worst). His fourth film was Ayanmo which was adapted from the play dedicated to his late first wife, Adesewa. In 1990, Ogunde briefly featured in the movie Mister Johnson, an American drama film based on the 1939 novel by Joyce Cary. The movie, set in 1923 British Colonial Nigeria, tells the story of Mister Johnson – a learned black man who doesn’t really fit in with the local natives or the British. Sadly, while on set for this production, Ogunde got very ill. He didn’t recover from this illness and passed away on April 4, 1990 at Cromwell Hospital, London.
Sir Hubert Ogunde’s plays were usually a reflection of the prevailing political climate in Nigeria and illustrated the major issues and conflicts of government authorities. He was an outspoken contemporary political commentator who believed that liberation could only be achieved by a united national front. He was an original thinker who was ahead of his time and always found ways to better his craft. Ogunde was the founder and first president of the Association of Nigerian Theatre Practitioners (ANTP) and his demise left a huge void in the performance theatre industry. He also paved the way for women in Nigerian theatre because he provided a platform for women that offered them the opportunity to perform in plays as professional artists.
At home, Ogunde was widely recognized for his contribution to Nigerian theatre and his advancement of African dances. In 1983, he was awarded the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (OFR) by President Shehu Shagari but rejected the honor citing his stance against government corruption. Ogunde would receive the honorary degrees of Doctor of Literature and Doctor of Letters by the Obafemi Awolowo University and University of Lagos respectively in 1985 and 1986. A few year later, he will accept the Excellence Award in the field of Drama and Film Production from the government of Ogun State.
Not only was he admired by Africans, Ogunde also was recognized abroad. After a 1986 rendition his play, Destiny, at the Commonwealth Festival of Arts in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Scots were noted to have described the play as an “epic of its time”.
- “Hubert Ogunde”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 29 September, 2016. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubert_Ogunde
- “Hubert Ogunde. Nigerian Playwright, Actor and Musician”. Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 29 September, 2016. https//www.britannica.com/biography/Hubert-Ogunde
- “Hubert Ogunde, father of Yoruba Theatre”. BlackNaija. 29 September, 2016. www.blacknaija.com/entertainment/hubert-ogunde-father-of-yoruba-theatre