Biyi Bandele’s death is a triumph and a celebration

August 15, 2022
The Creative Arts

In this exclusive piece for Travu, Dr Patrick-Jude Oteh pays tribute to a long-term friend and collaborator

How do you wish a friend and colleague an untimely goodbye? However, we sometimes learn to defy death, to mock it and to scoff at it. Biyi Bandele would have done the same, and I believe that’s what he did.

We were eagerly looking forward to the Netflix premiere of his recent adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and on Netflix afterwards. He would never know how it’ll be received by his growing fan base, not to mention the global audience.

I’m quite sure that this much awaited production would have mapped out a new trajectory for Biyi, leading to greater heights — and to new and bigger projects. It never occurred to us — and I am sure to even Biyi — that he would actually be a very willing Elesin Oba in the mould of the play’s protagonist’s son.

Clear eyed, sure footed

Biyi and I met back in 1989 at the offices of the American Theatre Revue, then at the United States Information Service (USIS) on Broad Street. We were upstairs with our boss, Chuck Mike, when a sprightly young man walked in. Mike introduced the visitor as Biyi Thomas, his student at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), who had written a play (Rain) that he was directing.  

The play, a collage of all-things Nigeria, went on to win multiple awards. Soon afterwards, news reached us that Biyi had won the BBC African Students Playwrights Award and would be leaving for the UK. He left but kept in touch with us as best as he could. Other plays and novels followed, and many accolades too.

Biyi, it turned out, was a workaholic. Shortly after a commission by the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), he began a collaboration with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to adapt Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for the stage. He insisted that Mike would direct the play. The folks at LIFT did not know who he was talking about, but he stood his ground; the play would go on stage only if directed by Mike, who had founded Collective Artistes in 1999 and where I worked as Company/ Stage Manager.

And that’s exactly how it played out.

Creative with a swag

He dropped in at rehearsals every now and again, while he tweaked the script. To Biyi, something was always missing, something didn’t sound quite right. He aimed to perfect a play which novel was already a masterpiece. Biyi’s house — at Westbourne Park Road — became a haunt of sorts; we went there only occasionally and it was a typical writer’s pad. Nothing ostentatious — just the essentials.

Biyi Bandele facilitating a group discussion for the British Council/ Jos Repertory Theatre script writing project [Photograph by Pelu Awofeso]

After performances in London and Birmingham, the play went on a World Tour, including multiple shows in the United States; we had a memorable run at the Kennedy Centre in Washington. The tour ended at the MUSON Centre with a multiracial cast.

Second chance

We had an opportunity to work together again, in early 2001. The British Council in Nigeria had entered into discussions with our company, Jos Repertory Theatre, at the onset of its “Connecting Futures” project. Zoned to British Council in Kano, then led then by energetic Gillian Belben, we were twinned with the Glasgow-based Clyde Unity Theatre, led by Mari and John Binnie. We were to suggest a UK-based playwright who could be engaged to help facilitate the writing of a script on youth-related societal issues in a new Nigeria.

I didn’t have to look too far or think twice about it – I proposed Biyi. We were also required to audition and invite actors, actresses, playwrights, directors and theatre workers from Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones, who would join the three-year project.

As Artistic Director of the project, I contacted Biyi to find out if he was interested in the project, and if he would be available. He was enthusiastic about it, and he agreed to work on the project with us. Together, we selected 15 participants from across Nigeria. The first residency (10 days) started in Jos at the then Portakabin Residence.

Gillian Belben at her office at the British Council in Kano [Photograph by Pelu Awofeso]

A run-in with the law

On the scheduled kickoff date, Biyi arrived from the UK with only the clothes on his back — and his handbag.

“Wey luggage?” I asked.

He flashed his trademark smile. He said that it had been seized at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport by the NDLEA.

“You had drugs in it?” I asked.

“Am I stupid?” he responded cheekily, and we laughed over it.

Of course, we knew that it couldn’t be drugs, because if it was then he would not even be in Jos in the first place. Biyi was nonplussed, regardless. He wanted us to get to work immediately: he had films and scripts, which – fortunately – he had stuffed in his hand luggage, including all his other workshop materials. We started to make arrangements to help him settle in, getting toiletries, a jeans trouser and some T-shirts. We gave him a schedule and sent updates to Gillian in Kano.

We spent the next nine days immersed in all that Biyi had to offer. His selection of films were illustrative. There were classics, there were new films, there were those that were yet to be released: An Enemy of the People, Mister Johnson, City of God, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Gangs of New York, Bicycle Thieves, 25th Hour, 12 Angry Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien.

The selection helped us identify societal issues that were either parallel to what was common in Nigeria at the time and also to illustrate how the scripts came about.

Dr Patrick Jude Oteh (Standing first from Left) with participants of the British Council/ Jos Repertory Theatre script-writing residency, in Kano

From Nollywood to Netflix

One of the topics we addressed during brainstorming sessions was the adaptation of our literature into films. Filmmakers elsewhere in the world, we argued, were doing it already – so why not Nigeria? He said he hoped and looked forward to the day when he would be able to adapt our novels into credible films. Years later, that clear intent became reality with the release of the film adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.

Long and short: Biyi was already preparing for his future in film making, and when the opportunities came he was more than ready to deliver.

In the evenings, we discussed the day’s events, took new notes and when everyone had gone to bed, we plotted the next day’s schedule. It is instructive that Biyi kept his door open throughout the ten days in Jos; he made himself available to anyone who needed his attention. His cabin was always open and he seldom complained about anything — that was the quintessential Biyi.

At the end of the 10th day, we had a working script (Titled Our House), so that when Gillian joined us from Kano, we had something to show. She was so excited about the script and decided that the play would premiere at the 1st Jos Festival of Theatre, in 2004.

Mistaken Identity

Biyi left for the UK very fulfilled and satisfied with the outcome of his creative supervision. With British Council’s support, he travelled to Abuja and then to the airport to attend to his withheld luggage. He left Jos half expecting to be arrested, but didn’t let the likelihood of that happening bother him at all.

At the airport, his bag had been triple-chained to a railing. There was a note on it with instructions to call the attention of the NDLEA when the owner arrived, which was done. The Commandant came with three other officials from the agency, with profound apologies. As Biyi later told us, he had been the victim of a mistaken identity; there was a bag that looked exactly like his that had been marked as containing suspicious substances; they mixed things up and held the wrong bag.

Dr Patrick-Jude Oteh (R) with Biyi Bandele

Biyi accepted the apologies and checked his bag: everything was intact. He gave the remaining films and scripts to the driver to deliver to us in Jos. He had also brought a copy of his adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko for me. Other items, he donated to the Jos Repertory Theatre.

A generous, humble being

In 2005, the Embassy of Spain in Abuja had requested that we perform a play that could showcase what we can do as we had a proposal with them. We decided to perform Biyi’s adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s tragedy, Yerma. The issue of royalty came up. We settled for £25 per performance. We had two performances in Jos. We then had the challenge of sending the money to him.

“Patrick, convert the money, buy books and donate to two or three schools and let me know,” he told me. And that’s exactly what we did.

The Jos Repertory Theatre performing ‘Things Fall Apart”, adapted for stage by Biyi Bandele. Photograph by Pelu Awofeso

This was also to come up during the negotiations for royalty for Things Fall Apart until later years when he asked us to deal directly with the Achebe Foundation! Biyi was generous to a hilt! We met once or twice in London during private trips and he was his usual ebullient and accommodating self.

There was always a certain humility with Biyi. He was genteel and he had this confidence about him, even if the sky was about to fall. I sent him a note after watching his film adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun, congratulating him. He simply responded that it was what was expected of all of us. We should be able to tell our own stories using our platforms. He did this so well.

I last saw Biyi in 2015. It was at the Freedom Park in Lagos, when we were performing Aime Cesaire’s The Tragedy of King Christophe at the request of Prof. Wole Soyinka for the Lagos Black Heritage Festival. Biyi — in his characteristic generosity — came to see our cast.

We had two or three who had been at the Our House residencies and he still recognized them. He told the cast that they had lots of promise and that if any of them was ever in Lagos, they should seek him out, mention my name and he would see what they could do together.

“Patrick, we should work together again sometime,” he said to me later. I said that I looked forward to it.

Now this has happened. Biyi has transitioned. As painful as it is, it is a season of triumph for him and a celebration for us. I do not know if he achieved all his dreams, but I will hazard a guess and say that he was on a solid path and his space in the Nigerian and international pantheon of greats is assured.

It is a celebration for us because Biyi epitomized what can happen even in a season of deprivation by dint of hard work and consistency. It has been a long long way from Kafanchan, Kaduna State.

So Biyi, fare thee well. We will always remember you with a lot of fondness and thanks. Thank you for sharing the beauty of your creative passion with us. Thank you for friendship and thank you for illuminating our paths with lots of grace. You challenged the future and I believe fervently that you won. Sleep well.

Dr. Patrick-Jude Oteh is Artistic Director of Jos Repertory Theatre.

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