It was 1982 at the University of Ibadan. I was with Peter Iyaforkhai who had told me tales of our famed lecturers. One of them was ‘Bayo Oduneye (Uncle B) of RADA and Carnegie Mellon, who knew his worth and where he was coming from, a man who would not suffer fools gladly.
Fortunately or unfortunately, by the time we resumed, Uncle B was nowhere to be found.
He was away on an official trip and we were not to see him until a couple of weeks later. The encounter was memorable. We had just finished a lecture at the Practical Theatre, strolling past Department of Philosophy, past the ATAS office and walked onto the stage. Dead silence.
There was an on-going class. We strolled into the stage. He allowed us to get half way and the next thing we heard was “Stop! Who trained you?!”
The baritone voice froze us in our tracks. I forget who managed to blurt out that we were Diploma students. The baritone voice responded – “you are lucky I am in a good mood but by the time I finish with you all, you will know the difference between Tha and Phi” But something strange happened – his whole class burst into laughter at our discomfort and that was when I knew that there was a lot of goodness in the Man. We found out later.
The first class we had with him was directing. Some of us came into the Theatre with science backgrounds so the very fact that you had to systematically move actors on stage was alien to us. But he was a patient teacher.
Forget the brashness. Forget the dismissive attitude. He was a human being.
It was after the iconic production of Barrie Stavis’ The Man Who Never Died where I played Attorney General Stonethatwebecamefriends. Heasked me one day if I had a place to stay and I toldhimthatIwasinSultanBelloHall. He said okay, if I ever needed anything, I should let him know. Uncle B was a cool dresser.
The day he came in jeans, it was with a clean, neatly tailored and ironed white shirt. He was not into converse but solid shoes and leather slip on.
He was a hit amongst the students and we were always proud to say that “Uncle B is my Teacher”. He was our quintessential teacher, an enigma who made sure you never forget his RADA and Carnegie Mellon solid backgrounds. Uncle B even in those early days and throughout his life was a very kind man.
He was a gentleman to the core. He had some faults which I noticed later in life – Uncle B can give you the last N20 in his pocket without thinking where the next N10 was going to come from!
He hated seeing anyone unhappy or hungry or lacking. This was his other part that baffled a lot of people who were used to or who disliked his bragging self.
Uncle B had an accompanying object that he always brought to class – it was an aluminum silver flask filled with Lipton Tea with no sugar and no milk telling us that if we want to live long, we should drink tea.
By the time I got to Year Three, we had bonded like Father and Son. I will not go into the genesis of this relationship but he had given me an assignment which I performed to the best of my ability. He had asked me to take care of a vulnerable student and I had done it superbly.
And that marked the beginning of a lifelong relationship. He then gave me the keys to his office and so as a student, I had an “office” that was airconditioned and where I could read all night and day when Uncle B was not around and he took to calling me “Son”!
He knew all my friends on campus and outside and when I was to get married, he was to have been the Chairman in Jos but last minute travel plans scuttled the trip to Jos!
The day we all knew that inside this most beautiful of men, was a little boy was the day Uncle B cried and broke down in front of the whole class with reckless abandon. He wept.
We were in the Practical Theatre and he suddenly screamed “Oh Lord!” and ran out to the steps and started weeping profusely. We were all dazed and speechless.
It was the day General Mamman Vatsa was executed. They were very close and a lot of trips were made to the then virgin Abuja at the behest of the General. It was a terrible week.
From my early days in the Theatre, I had wanted to specialize in Technical Theatre but Uncle B was of the opinion that it was directing that is the future of the Theatre.
Later by the time we came back for the Degree, I veered off into Directing and being the only student Director working with Uncle B. he thus supervised my first directing project Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘The Black Hermit’ and the final directing project, Peter Rolfe’s Hadrian The Seventh.
One day, Uncle B arrived unannounced at “our” office. He had been travelling and as soon as he arrived, he asked that I seek out Teju Wasee Kareem and Taiwo Obasaju (Temitope Stephen), and we should all see him immediately. Converging in his office, he announced that “the renaissance of Nigerian Theatre was about to happen”.
He had been appointed the Artistic Director of PEC Repertory Theatre with Prof. Clark as Executive Director. He told us about the Ford Foundation grant that was going to make this possible and that three of us will be going with him to PEC. And that was how we ended up in Lagos at PEC for NYSC.
It was a very formidable team as Uncle B had already worked out all details including extra allowances for us – Wasee Kareem was to be in Technical, Temitope was to be the Stage Manager while I would assist him in Directing. Unfortunately, the carefully laid plans did not fully materialize.
This is another story for another day. We had two memorable productions in attempts to revive PEC – Peter Rolfe’s Hadrian the Seventh and Bayo Oduneye’s own adaptation of Exit Muttering which he titled The Visit of Bishop Alaba.
The ‘renaissance’ at PEC never happened and Prof. Clark and Uncle B went their separate ways. PEC wound up and Uncle B started Diamond Productions. We were torn between Prof. Clark and Uncle B.
To solve it we worked both ways. We went to PEC to report and ran back to Little Road to either meet with Uncle B or rehearse at the National Theatre. We had equally memorable productions there –
The Visit of Bishop Alaba and the American classic The Colored Museum. It was a dream that did not really kick off. First, a lot of things were wrong. Uncle B had always been in the University and some of his friends in the corporate world did not share his vision for the theatre.
He later went back to Ibadan and stamped his directorial authority with the production of Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’. If anything, Uncle B had an eye for talent. When he performed this landmark in Lagos, it was faultless and the cast were new kids on the block. If ever there was a Theatre Director that would bring out the best in his actors, it was Uncle B.
He later left Ibadan for the National Troupe as Artistic Director before leaving for Ago-Iwoye. I think and I believe that Uncle B’s main forte was in mentoring and nurturing new talents and ideas inside the University. He never fully thrived in the world of private Theatre productions and funding.
In later years he was to admit this. There are so many stories about our iconic teacher and friend. Only time will reveal the stories and fully demystify the enigma. A great and beautiful soul has gone to sleep.
Sleep well Uncle B!
Dr. Oteh is the Artistic Director of Jos Repertory Theatre