The Department of Dramatic Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Nigeria remembers Professor Gladstone Emmanuel Olawale Rotimi (popularly known as Ola Rotimi), a founding father of the department and a theatre practitioner of international repute (one of the world’s best theatre directors) who passed on to glory twenty years ago, in his private residence in Kurunmi Lodge, Ede Road, Ile-Ife. Until his death, he was a staff of the University on contract appointment.
Born on April 13, 1938 to a Yoruba father and an Ijaw mother, he attended Primary and Secondary Schools in Port-Harcourt and Lagos. Between 1959 and 1963, he studied as a Federal Government of Nigeria scholar for a degree in Dramatic Arts at Boston University, USA. He was also in Yale University between 1963 and 1965 for a Master of Fine Arts degree, as a Rockefeller Foundation Scholar.
He came back to Nigeria in 1966 and joined the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) as a Research Fellow in the University’s Institute of African Studies. Together with his other colleagues in the institute, Ola Rotimi started the Ori-Olokun theatre group, a community theatre that was based in the centre of Ile-Ife town, thus bringing “the town” and “the gown” together. For the task, he recruited local amateur artists, farmers, teachers and other theatrical green horns, and trained them effectively in the arts of the theatre.
With the establishment of the Department of Dramatic Arts, he was appointed as the pioneer Head of Department. Some of the artists in the old Ori-Olokun theatre migrated to the new department to form the resident theatre company, now christened Awovarsity Theatre – a professional resident theatre company that serves as a practical laboratory to complement the academic programmes of the hosting department.
Ola Rotimi was an astute teacher, a hardworking, diligent, altruistic and conscientious lecturer with a passion and flair for mentoring and imparting knowledge. He was known for simple but not simplistic language, as he believed that theatre is a form of Mass Communication, and the more people an artist can communicate with, the better. He was a role model for both students and colleagues. As a theatre practitioner, he combined both theory and practice of the arts. In his dramaturgy Ola Rotimi propounded and practised several new theories of theatre.
He was best known as a playwright and play director. He was also a veteran choreographer, actor, dancer and theatre designer- a complete man of the theatre. He wrote a number of fantastic plays, some of which made indelible international marks, and were staged, and are still being staged in different countries of the world. Of prominence among such plays is The Gods Are Not to Blame, an adaptation/Africanization of an original Greek play – Oedipus Rex (King Oedipus) by Sophocles. His other plays that made international marks include Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, Kurunmi, Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, If: A Tragedy of The Ruled, Holding Talks, Man Talk Woman Talk and Hopes of the Living Dead.
Rotimi was a veteran practitioner of the Travelling Theatre Tradition (Theatre on the road) as he took several play productions to different parts of Nigeria and the world, playing to diverse audiences. He was appointed as Professor of Creative Arts at the University of Port-Harcourt where he later lectured. His lecturing experience also includes some Universities in America and the Caribbean.
Prof. Ola Rotimi helped to develop the Department of Dramatic Arts of Obafemi Awolowo University. He trained his students to be as sharp as razors. He generated ideas that heightened productivity in the department. He was a highly respected mentor and role model to many people. He was certainly one of Nigeria’s best egg-heads.
For a world-class artist like Ola Rotimi that operated at the topmost echelon of artistic excellence and academic quintessence, death is not a limitation. It is not a truncation of life, but a continuation of it, on a higher pedestal. Like Shakespeare, Wordsworth and others who continue to be alive in their works, Ola Rotimi cannot die. His is just a change of scene. Adieu “Sapele Bobo” (as he used to call himself). The Department of Dramatic Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria can never, will never forget you.
1. Book to mark 20years of Ola Rotimi’s exit:
The Hiding Place of Kurunmi
(Critical and Social Perspectives on Ola Rotimi and His Theatre) Edited by ‘Bayo Afolabi
2. Special Programme to Honour Ola Rotimi
To be announced after Covid-19 closure.