Discouragement not to marry white woman inspired Ola Rotimi’s first play – Son, Enitan
Enitan Rotimi is the firstborn of the late renowned playwright and Theatre Art lecturer, Prof Ola Rotimi. In this interview with OLADIMEJI RAMON, Enitan speaks about the playwright’s life and times, giving a glimpse into parts of him unknown to the public
TWhat is your position among his children?
name and reputation will go before you and live long after you have died. It will yield dividends for your children and children’s children. Look around you and you will notice that ill-gotten wealth brings misfortune with it, that is why you ask about the families of those who got it illegally and you notice that even if the individual didn’t suffer directly while on earth, you will notice that their children are totally messed up. Whereas those with a good name find favour and live blessed lives.
He must have told you how he met your mum. Can you briefly share the story?
They met in Boston University as students. She was in music and he, theatre. It was at a time when inter-racial relationships were discouraged. In some states, it was illegal and even hazardous to the health of the black man in that relationship. He could be lynched for having a white girlfriend.
Not only was he (Ola Rotimi) a black man dating a white girl, he was an African. However, neither of them were conformists. The more society pushed against the relationship, the stronger their bond grew. Much to the annoyance of their detractors, their “Oyibo princess” started to tie wrapper with gele like an African woman. They graduated and went to Yale where they announced their wedding plans. That generated even more resistance and some people told her that “You know Africans are polygamous. This African man you want to marry has two other wives back home. Do you want to follow him back to Africa and discover that you are wife number three?” She told him everything and their accusations inspired him to write his first play: Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again. In the play, Liza lands in Nigeria from the US only to discover that her husband (Lejoka Brown) has two other wives. That play was awarded Yale Student Play of the Year in 1966. Its stage performance generated raving reviews in the US newspapers. The news of the young Nigerian student’s play in the US hit the press in Nigeria, making him a sensation even before the ink of his graduation certificate dried. Job offers came rolling in, in the US and Nigeria. He chose Nigeria and she followed him. Needless to say, there were no other wives in Nigeria when they landed, and there would never be other wives till death did them part in 2000. She died first. After her funeral in the US he returned to the dream house they built in Ile-ife, Home of Love, where they planned to spend their twilight years surrounded by children, grandchildren, playing in the big yard full of every tropical fruit tree you can find in Africa. There he died of a heart attack two months later.
o many, your dad was a famous playwright. How will you describe him?
He was multifaceted, it’s difficult to describe him with a few words, so I’ll stick to a few of his major characteristics. He believed that everyone on earth came with a specific mission to fulfil and you were born with the necessary talents to accomplish it. Music, engineering, healing, teaching etc, he believed the gift was in us and it was his duty as a father to identify it and steer us into becoming the best version of ourselves and not a copy of himself. Being a writer, he had the gift of reading people accurately. That translated into realistic characters in his plays that anyone watching them would say I know someone like that. On the personal level, he could see through your public face down to the real you and deal with you accordingly. He was fair in his treatment of others and disdained wicked and selfish people, especially those who used their position and good fortune to oppress others.
I am the first of the late Prof. Ola Rotimi’s four biological children – Oruene Ruth Yewande, Abiodun Olawale Otonye and Bankole Daniel Idubamo, being the others. I say biological because there are over a hundred young people who he treated like his children and they too saw him as a father figure in their lives. Most (of such children are) in Nigeria and many are in the US, UK and the Caribbean. His biological children, all four of us, are based in the US working in our different careers: IT consulting, business and teaching.
What was growing up for you and your siblings like, with ola Rotimi as your father?
It was great. He had a different relationship with each child based on that child’s personality. For example, he could have long political and economic discussions with me and my friends for hours on end. My friends had similar interests as I and he would engage us with such discussions. With Oruene it would be psychosocial matters. Biodun was and still is not much of a talker, so he engaged him differently while Kole or Alhaji, as he fondly called him, was entrepreneurial as a child and still as an adult, so he would encourage Kole to run his business ideas by him, give adult advice, then finance the plan. By the way, it wasn’t just his biological children he treated that way. He was like that with his students as well, that’s why he is referred to as “the Father of Nollywood.” Many of the founding actors, directors and producers in Nollywood that studied in OAU (Obafemi Awolowo University) Ife-ife, UNIPORT (University of Port Harcourt) have stories of his influence in their careers and it wasn’t limited just to classroom interactions.
He passed away in August 2000. What are the most enduring memories of him that you have and cherish?
There are so many enduring memories that I cherish, especially the ones about how to handle the crisis of daily life. Twenty years after his passing I still apply lessons learned in dealing with situations that come my way. One example is (his belief that) a good name is more important than money; not to say money is bad but you must not compromise your personal beliefs or partake in wickedness while pursuing it. Because money is like a prostitute, today it is with you and tomorrow it is with someone else. It has no sense of loyalty. Your
What was your mother’s opinion about him?
It depends on how she was feeling when you asked her that question. Most people paint a rosy picture of love. However, anyone who’s been in love with the same person over two years will tell you that beautiful roses have thorns that can irritate you. If you asked her on a good day, she would say he was tenacious and unwavering. If you asked her the same question on a bad day, she would say he could be stubborn sometimes. But she just used different words to describe the same overlapping character trait they both had, except he expressed it loudly like a Nigerian and she was quiet in her execution like a Bostonian.
In relation to his children, was he a disciplinarian?
Yes oh! Not just to his biological children but everyone he loved and saw something good in them. He believed that it takes fire, a strong arm and hammer to beat iron ore into a useful implement. You don’t win Olympics by talent alone. You need discipline, hard work and tenacity. If you were not willing to utilise that God-given talent that he saw in you, he would drag it out of you by fire, by force. There would be no excuses and there would be no negotiation. He could read your character very quickly, identify your creative talent even before you knew about it yourself and bring it out of you. Sometimes the process was pleasant and sometimes not so pleasurable, especially if you had the proclivity for laziness, excuses or taking shortcuts. Bringing out the best in young people and watching them evolve into their greatest potential was like a personal mission for him. So, while the world gave him accolades and awards for plays and written works, we, his family, knew of his third mission and the delight he got in watching his students on TV, radio, Hollywood, BBC and of course Nollywood.
He is described as the “Father of Nollywood” because of the paternal relationship he had with his students who became Nollywood directors, producers, and actors, even though he himself did not produce any movies. Not every one of his children (biological or adopted) became a professional actor, director or playwright. The fact is, it didn’t matter what your talent is, if he saw it in you, he would pull it out of you. Public administration, business, engineering or whatever it was that he saw in you, he would make sure it came out, and he expected you to excel at it. He believed that everyone was sent to the earth with a mission and that you were given the talents and everything necessary to fulfil that mission; just as the mango seed has everything in it to become a mango tree to provide fruit for people to eat. All the mango seed needs is soil and water and it would grow to fulfil its mission on earth. The same applies to human beings, and Papa’s duty was to provide the necessary fertiliser to make you bloom into the best version of yourself, not a carbon copy of himself.
As a result, he never insisted any of his children become playwrights, actors or directors like himself. Just as he did not become an engineer like his father or a public administrator like his grandfather but was allowed to fulfil his mission with the talents that were deposited in him, which he strived to develop to its fullest potential. The same way he drove himself was the same way he drove those he loved. The personal discipline and resultoriented training to be the best version of yourself and not a copy of someone else is evidenced in the lives of his children, students and anyone who worked with or for him, including the housemaids, some of who became teachers, a famous sculptor, a flight engineer, university lecturer and a lawyer. It didn’t matter their tribe, religion, or economic background.
It is common for creative persons or artists to have some weird traits. Was there anything weird or unique about your dad?
None that I know of. Maybe I and others around me share the same weirdness that whatever he did looked normal to us.
As a lecturer, a writer and theatre artist, he must have been very busy. Did his work allow him spend enough time with his family?
Writing, teaching and theatre was not work to him; it was an integral part of the life in the Rotimi household. Theatre was as much a part of the Ola Rotimi household as eating. Everyone in the house went on stage except the dog. As a child you played the role of a child in his plays and acted all the way up through university when we graduated and moved on to our different careers in the military, education, business administration and computer science. Biodun, for example, was a baby when he went on stage as “Baby Odewale,” in the first performance of The gods Are Not to Blame with Femi Robinson (the first Village Headmaster) as King Odewale. In university, we spent so much time in the theatre that most people thought we were Theatre Art majors taking elective courses in Engineering, Political Science, Economics and Fine Arts, our real majors.
We didn’t just watch his performances at the art theatre, we acted and in many cases mama composed the music. You would notice that there was always a strong musical component in all his plays. Remember, she