Oga Steve Abah is a Professor of Theatre for Development at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he has been teaching since 1979. Abah, a leader in applying theatre as a tool for development, has taken the practice to communities across Nigeria. He is also the brain behind the Nigerian Popular Theatre Alliance (NPTA). He speaks with Daily Trust on his passion for theatre.
They used to refer to us as children of Jaguar and Baba Sala.It wasn’t quite popular at the time. In 1975 when I went to Ahmadu Bello University, my interest was in Sociology. In Year One, I attended Sociology classes. But along the line I didn’t enjoy the classes. With my first series of lecture in Sociology I got introduced to some of the so-called great thinkers like Auguste Comte and people who talked about the society like Van Gennep, author of ‘The Primitive Minds.’ These were European thinkers who theorised about African societies.
What made you stand out and break the perception of Drama students being considered as outcasts?
The re-orientation of the Drama department in the university was remarkably unique. The person who set up the Drama programme, Michael Etherton, came to ABU from Zambia, where he had been teaching at the University of Zambia. There, they had been practising Chikwakwa theatre, which was a grassroots theatre. The idea was that drama within an academic environment needed to break through the wall of the ivory tower, the citadel; to talk about issues around us and to have a relationship between the academic and the wider society.
In theatre for development, students do not perform for the communities but the community members will perform their own drama
Well, I was part of the movement that started the movement that started it. It started from being a Drama programme in ABU. At the time the programme started, it was called popular theatre. What we were interested in was changing the nomenclature to thinking about what this theatre does.
I was nervous and jittery. Apart from the Samaru Improvisation, the one I can remember clearly is a performance in front of the then Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. We had the real show at the Drama Village. We did a play called the ‘Invincible Bond’ by Nuwa Sentongo. It was a weird play; when I think back to it, it was like an absurdist play exploring the issues of death. That was one of the first performances I did in the Drama Village. By then I was a lot more comfortable performing. But with every performance it is a different thing all together. However, you have to get a grip on it and the niche of the audience, especially at that time, because you couldn’t afford to fail.
He started ABU’s drama unit on a platform of its being participatory and avoiding the business of hierarchy. At the time in ABU calling a lecturer by first name was abhorrent and the culture would not allow the calling of one’s lecturer’s by first name. It was in this light the prefix, ‘oga’ came about. In the department lecturers are referred to as Oga Jenks, Oga Steve and so on. His theory was that if we must succeed at what we do, we must consider ourselves - including students - as colleagues and friends. This liberal attitude informed the nature of relationship in the department which has also been helpful for learning purposes.
I like the idea that one can move from theory, knowing there is a limit to theory and, therefore, you look for where theory speaks to practice, then you discover gaps areas.
I haven’t done anything on screen, maybe on television when I was doing my NYSC in 1978-1979. I served in the old Imo State and my primary place of deployment was the Nigeria Television Authority, Aba. I remember we did a play on television. That is the closest I have had with screen. Other than that, acting, as it were, was not my area of interest; I was more interested in the critical world, the academic theorisation.