Hubert Ogunde

Ogunde hailing his audience
Hubert Ogunde Photo: Guardian NG

Hubert Ogunde was born in 1916 in Ososa, near Ijebu-Ode of Ogun State to Jeremiah Dehinbo and Eunice Owatusan Ogunde. In 1924 at the age of eight, he began participating occasionally with Egun Alarinjo, Dara Mojo Atete and, Ekun Oko as a dancer and drummer up until 1928. He attended St John’s school, Ososa from 1925 – 1928 for his Elementary Education, he then moved on to continue his education in Lagos at St Peter’s Faji School from 1928-1930, from 1931-1932, he attended Wasimi African School, at Ijebu-Ode after which he became a teacher and organist. In the year 1941 at the age of twenty five (25) he joined the Nigerian Police Force and, was sent to training at the Police Training School, Enugu from March till September after which he was posted to Ibadan in October as a third class constable, in 1943 he was transferred to Nigerian Police Force ‘c’ division Ebutte-Metta, Lagos.

At the age of twenty eight, Hubert Ogunde produced his first opera “The Garden of Eden” and “The Throne of God” at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos on the 12th of June, 1944. In 1945 he founded The African Music Research Party as an amateur dramatic society, by March of the same year he resigned from the police force. He was cautioned together with his director G.B.Kuyinu by the police for producing the opera “Worse than Crime”. In March 1946, he turned professional with the production of “Tigers Empire”, he was cautioned by the force for staging the opera “Tiger’s Empire”. In the same year he took his company on an extensive tour of the former western province for the first time. By October his theatre was banned from Jos for staging Strike and Hunger, he was also fined £125 which was N250 at the time. Ogunde, later took his company outside Nigeria for the first time to Dahomey, now known as Republic of Benin. In 1947, after being refused passports to travel to Britain Ogunde and his lead actress Clementine Ogunbule who later became Mrs. Adeshewa Ogunde, they were both granted passports in March after pressure from the press and public. On his return from Britain in October Ogunde changed the name of his company from Africa Music Research Party to Ogunde Theatre Party. In the year 1948, Ogunde took his company to the Gold Coast (Ghana) with the opera King Solomon which became a disaster but he later returned that same year with a concert show Swing the Jazz which was a better success as it suited the Ghanian taste. By May 1950, Ogunde, was banned in another state, Kano for staging Bread and Bullet and was arrested for seditions. He was also fined £6 which was N12 for posting posters of his play without permission. He also changed his company name again from Ogunde Theatre Party to Ogunde Concert Party. At the age of thirty five Ogunde marked the seventh anniversary of his theatre with the production of the opera My Darling Fatima.

In the year 1960 Nigeria marked its independence and Ogunde’s play Song Of Unity was commissioned by the Nigeria Government to mark this great day, he later changed his company name to Ogunde Theatre from Ogunde Concert party. He was banned in March 1964 from performing throughout the western region by the western region government for staging of Yoruba Ronu (Yoruba Think), as an answer to his ban he produced Otito Koro (Truth is Bitter).

The ban was lifted in February 1966, by the Lt. Col. F.A. Fajuyi, the new military Governor of the region. By 1967, Ogunde theatre was sent to perform at Expo ’67 in Montreal, Canada by the Nigerian Government. On his return home, Ogunde stopped in USA and performed at the famous Apollo theatre in Harlem, New York City. Ogunde’s theatre was again invited to the west to perform at the international Llangollen Eisteddfod, in North Wales, and also performed at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon, Britain. In 1971 he founded the union of Nigerian Dramatists and Playwrights of which he became president. The union at the time boasted of over a hundred professional travelling theatre companies from all over Nigeria.  In 1970 Adeshewa died in a road accident en- route to a performance in illesha, Ogunde in the following year wrote a play in her memory called Ayanmo.  From 1971 – 1976, he  constantly battled through press with the world organizers of the second world Black and African festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) over what he considered inadequate and unprofessional arrangements for the festival. By August,

1972 at the age of 56 Ogunde, marked the 25th anniversary of his theatre with the production of Aiye, he was invited to South- Africa stage Ipi –Tombi by the South-African troupe for the opening of the Nations National Theatre but objected saying an indigenous company should have had the honour. By 1976 he marked the 33rd anniversary of his theatre in January with the dance drama Nigeria he also used the production to commemorate Festac therefore, giving support to the festival for patriotic reasons. In this same year he objected through press conferences the high cost of the national theatre by professional indigenous troupes, he succeeded in 1977 in having the cost of the National Theatre reduced and had the premiere of Igba to’ de’ at the National Theatre therefore making the first time a play of his was staged in Lagos other than the Glover

Memorial Hall. Ogunde became the leading producer of Yoruba celluloid movies with J’ayesimi (Let the World Rest), Aiye (world) and Aropin ‘n tenia, later in 1990, Ogunde starred in Mister Johnson alongside 007’s Pierce Brosnan. The movie was shot on location in Jos. Ogunde took ill during the production and was flown to London but, he requested he be returned to Jos so as to complete his role in the movie and to avoid breeching the agreements, his condition became worse and he was flown back again to London Cromwell Hospital where he died in April 1990.


Hubert Ogunde’s love for theatre started at the age of eight with the influence of the classical theatre of the Yoruba, the Alarinjo theatre where he played the parts as a musician, but the European theatre especially the European Variety Theatre was a great influence on Ogunde the good thing is, he re fashioned it to create a different and unique kind of theatre, other influences is the Illorin Acrobat Theatre where he learnt his dance routine. The Alarinjo theatre is believed to have emerged from the dramatic roots of the Egungun (Masquerade) as a means for worshipping the ancestors and during the reign of the Alaafin Ogbolu as a court entertainment. Alaafin Ogbolu also known as Abipa, was the fourth king of Oyo and last King in exile, he made a resolve to bring back all his people in exile and to move the government seat back to Katunga the ancient Capital but, this were not easy especially since his people in exile found it hard to believe that moving back to Oyo would be worthwhile and the king’s council, Oyo- Mesi were also against the move but the king was adamant to bring his people from exile and seeing they couldn’t change his resolve, the Alapinni, one of the Oyo- Mesi and an Egungun representative on the Kings council devised a strategy to foil his plans by using elements of disguise. Knowing it was customary for the king to send emissaries to inspect sites, propitiate the gods and make sacrifices before the final move in, they decided to scare the emissaries by using masked actors (ghost mummers) it did work on the first set of emissaries even the king was distressed at first by this but, the Ologbo, the royal cybalist and Arokin, who had some inkling of the truth advised the king to send a set of trust worthy  men to investigate the matter and six famous hunters were dispatched and soon they rounded up the actors hence the kings nick name “Oba Moro” (The king who caught ghosts)  the king made them his court entertainers under the charge of his Ologbo who is also a part of the Egungun cult and one day the king surprised the councilors by arranging a show in which the ghost mummers waited on those who made them, this of course surprised them but they took it with good humour and departed but, the king had greater plans for the  actors so he decided they do a public performance, a re-enactment of the “Ghost Catcher”, this incensed the councilors and they decided to ruin the show by evoking rain but the Ologbo stopped the heavy downpour and earned himself the name “Ologbojo” (the kings ologbo who has control of the rain!) the show was a success and, the councillors could never forgive Ologbo for defying the Egungun Cult first by revealing their plan and by converting the ghosts they created to court entertainers. They finally succeeded in killing the Ologbojo by poisoning him but, the king gave him a semi- state funeral and his body was wrapped in an ass’ skin and kept till the final movement to Old Oyo, his body was then buried in a court dedicated to his memory and called Ode Ogboluke – Eni ti Ogbolu fi Ode-Ile ke (one whom Ogbolu honoured with a court). The story of the “Ghost Catcher” was re-enacted three times annually at Oyo, first during the Orisa Oko (Farm god) festival, secondly the Orisa Mole and thirdly the Oduduwa festival, it was also enacted during the installation of a new Alaafin. We can therefore say the Ologbin Ologbojo founded the Alarinjo theatre, and with his son he started out as a lineage profession.  Ogunde recalled that his inspiration is as a result of his affiliation with the Alarinjo theatre saying “I was playing drums with the masquerades in my home town when I was young, and these Egungun people gave me the urge inside me to start a company of actors”.

The Travelling Theatre


Ogunde and wives; all members of his theatre company
Ogunde and wives; all members of his theatre company, read review of a recent tour together. Source: NNP


Ogunde started his own dance troupe in 1945 after spending four years with the Nigerian Police Force, he made his first advertisement on 14th December 1945 for the recruitment of thirty charming ladies. When he didn’t receive any reply he reduced the number to ten and added that they apply in person to him, this time he got response and positive one at that. At the time people regarded the Alarinjo’s as vagabonds with no better means of survival, so to have a man who was a steady income earner throw all that away to become a “vagabond” really takes one back but, Ogunde had a dream and had pictured where he wanted to go with his dream. This is not to say that Ogunde was the first to ever give Nigeria a professional theatre but he was unique in many ways, he was like a breath of fresh air. The professional actor before Ogunde would wear a mask to perform and the audience never saw whoever was performing at least not during performance but Ogunde changed all that, for the first time the professional actor unmasked himself and showed his person to the audience. We can then say that Ogunde was the first to bring the audience a professional theatre without masks. By doing this Ogunde depicted his stage and performing characters as real men and, therefore made them believable to the audience.

Although Ogunde was also influenced by the European theatre, and his first venture into theatre started with the church, this did not deter the wealth of tradition he infused in his plays. Before Ogunde only the elite class of Lagosians could afford to patronize the theatres due to its exhorbitant gate fees which discouraged the mass population from enjoying the theatre and, in the process made theatre unpopular and dependent on a tiny class for support and when the support was no longer forthcoming, the theatre collapsed. it can therefore be said that Ogunde must have figured out these issues surrounding the theatre before he started because, he not only moved the theatre that was traditionally performed in an open air to an enclosed environment, which gave it a box office system, like that of the opera theatres in Europe. He also raised platforms and changed round theatre to proscenium arch theatre, here he made use of modern theatre equipment like lightening, scenery and later sound amplification, his gate fees were also reasonable.

Theatre before Ogunde

There were Native Air Opera’s before Ogunde but, none used dialogue they usually swayed from side to side singing till the end. When the church he attended in Lagos decided in 1943 to raise funds for a church building by presenting a ‘Native Air Opera’ Ogunde, changed the rules of the game. He raised the bar by adding Realism, Dialogue and Dramatic action to his native air opera which made the people enjoy and clamour for more. From 1944 Ogunde started his career to 1946 his plays were always sold out that, even criminals made and sold counterfeit tickets to people. Although at this time Ogunde had not toured except occasionally to Abeokuta, he became so popular that people petitioned him to tour. After which he announced in the press that the African Music Research Party, due to popular request will tour the west. This tour took them to Illaro, Abeokuta, Ibadan, Ijebu-Ode, Ososa, Iganmu, and lasted only a weak but, also birthed  the Ogunde travelling theatre. 

Ogunde joined the augmented choir of the church of the lord and started out as a singer before he then presented his first Native Air Opera “The Garden of Eden and The Throne of God” and as the title connotes the opera carried biblical messages.

The first part of the opera told the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden until they fell and were ejected from the Garden. The second part depicted Lucifer demanding the soul of man which God refused to give and which led to a battle between Lucifer and St Michael.

The closing part shows the Lord Jesus Christ mediating and pleading the cause of mankind before the throne of God His promise to redeem mankind by his blood and, his departure to earth in order to fulfill this promise are the final stages of the opera.

Biblical messages were at first the main focus and content of Ogunde’s plays but, with time the plays contents changed focus to political. Worse than Crime was the first political play Ogunde theatre performed and it was his own contribution to the Nigerian Independence movement with the support of Nnamdi Azikiwe, one of Nigeria’s top Nationalist at the time and, chairman of the show. The advert of the play stated that ‘Slavery in any shape or form is ‘Worse Than Crime’.

According to Mr Kuyinu, Ogunde’s director the aim of the play was to expose colonialism in any form as worse than crime, this landed both Kuyinu and Ogunde in detention for two days.

Although this was meant to be set back but, it didn’t deter them from continuing the show, they got reviews from newspapers, people wrote to editors to commend and congratulate them, some even requested that other theatres emulate them and use the ancient airs of Yoruba land instead of the Africanized European tunes that were usually used. After this people started attending their rehearsals to Watch and learn with their permission and started to change their own theatres, examples are Layele and A.B. David.

Ogunde’s influences

Ogunde being congratulated by South West most prominent politician, Awolowo after performance of "Yoruba Ronu" at Ibadan in 1966.
Ogunde being congratulated by South West most prominent politician, Awolowo after performance of “Yoruba Ronu” at Ibadan in 1966. Photo: Ogunde Museum

Ogunde continued performing plays which had contents with biblical messages and political issues affecting the country. His theatre went ahead to perform Hunger and Strike in contribution to the fight of the Nation for a better life, the play narrated the events leading to the strike of June 1945 where, the trade union requested for better wages, cost of living allowances and improved conditions of service which made the colonial government review many of its policies, this eventually led to the strike of forty four days and even the Jamaicans joined their comrades in sympathy and went on a one day strike. This play got Ogunde banned from Jos, but also gave him national prominence as the battle between Ogunde represented by The West African Pilot and the Public Relations Department of the Nigerian Government represented by The Nigerian Daily Times commenced. The West African Pilot reported the case of Ogunde being banned and disallowed to perform and also brutalized by the Police force in Jos but The Nigerian Daily Times denied anything like that ever happening citing that Ogunde didn’t collect permission to perform but Ogunde provided documents that the difficulties placed in his way this vindicated him and made him the nations Hero, this incident made not just the Yoruba’s love him but also the nation. This coverage helped to popularize his Ogunde’s theatre.

Ogunde’s message

Ogunde’s theatre broadened over time and his play’s contents diversified as he continued to tour, his messages ranged from biblical to political to social issues affecting the country then supernatural. On his return from a tour in Ghana, Ogunde produced a quasi- folkloric opera titled yours forever. The story is about the romance between a king and his newly acquired wife. It goes further to show the inevitability of jealousy that occurs in polygamous homes and the disaster such jealousy causes in the end. With this Ogunde passed on messages to the audience to avoid such situations and as usual the audience enjoys the plays but we wouldn’t know if they took these lessons home. He continued to write as a means to communicate to the audience what he taught was right at the time, an example of this is, his play Yoruba ronu which means Yoruba think. It was named after the popular song he wrote “Yoruba Ronu”. This story he drew from history but the characters he changed and created new ones out of the political situation between Chief Awolowo and Akintola, turning them into characters and this caused him another ban. This time he was banned from performing in the whole of the western region by the Western Region Government. Declaring, Ogunde Concert Party as an ‘unlawful society’. Although Ogunde didn’t reply as he usually did through the press he wrote a play in response to his ban titled “Otito koro” which means Truth is Bitter the  opening words of this play will remind us of Fela

Anikulapo Ransome Kuti’s songs because, they sting deep and ring true to the ears. It goes thus;
Help me ask from the worthless leader
Help me ask from the wicked one
The evil doer thinks that other people talk about him
If you are not treacherous, why are you afraid of my songs
You fraud, you break down other people’s houses to build your own
You appear like a gentle ram , if you are bought by some you can be bought by others
The world loves liars, … the world hates the truth
The day of vengeance is coming, we know it is very near
The ban was lifted after two years by a new on February 4th 1966 by the military government. He continued to write and perform plays that affect the social issues of the country. He wrote his first social satire when the aso- ebi craze began, seeing that it caused serious competition amongst celebrants. The aso- ebi craze had to do with celebrants picking a particular material as a uniform for their occasion in which everyone attending wears the same thing. The amount of guests wearing the aso-ebi determined the celebrant’s social connections and popularity and this caused many broken homes as well as wives started leaving their husbands who couldn’t afford to buy these aso- ebi for lovers who could. The play was titled Human Parasite and was written to show the madness of this new craze. Ogunde continued his theatre and developed and grew with time, as times changed so did his theatre, he improvised on his plays and theatre and worked until the 70’s, by 1954 he started his movement from music to speech, this again increased his popularity and gave birth to a new kind of theatre, he became the leader of Yoruba celluloid movies, people travelled from far and wide to come and watch his movies at the national theatre. He worked until he breathed his last, Ogunde was on the set of Mr. Johnson in the 1990’s when he fell ill. He played the part of Mr. Johnsons father-in-law. On April 3rd 1990 he died at the hospital in Cromwell London.

Ogunde’s Heritage

Over the years, people have acknowledged Ogunde as the leader and father of contemporary Yoruba theatre and rightly so, because his aim remained to instruct, inform as well as entertain, which he achieved. Ogunde was the first playwright to study all the facets in Yoruba culture and make the people interested in their own tradition and cultural heritage by performing the traditional ritual of (Ijuba) saluting the gods before the beginning of anything although his salutes were modified and made to his Christian God but was portrayed like the olden days.

Ogunde’s theatre was created in formation to the Alarinjo theatre and in conformity with the Alarinjo theatre which was a lineage profession Ogunde, worked his wives and children into his company in order to make it a family business, which was a good thing as wherever he went his family could go with him which would have helped in averting strain in his relationship with his family.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer