When I logged on to my e-mail account on Monday, November 24 and saw the three-digit number in the Inbox, I knew that something momentous has happened. One hundred and seventeen e-mails in less than six hours. Of all my talkgroups, the one named for Dapo Adelugba is the busiest, with members taking to furious email trafficking for the flimsiest news, especially those to do with birthdays. I typically spend much time tapping the ‘Delete’ button on those days when traffic took me through the Adelugba route. Not today, though. A huge amount of the mail was written in treacly effusion, but I swam through the deluge, trying not to drown in an ocean of tears.
How does one mourn the passing of a man such as Professor Adelugba? Writing is the mode which best suits my expressive temperament, but it has been extremely difficult for me to write about his death, and even more so to understand the reasons for this difficulty. Having been writing lately about historical figures in a celebratory register, I confront the remoteness of the emotions necessary to come to terms with the finality of his death.
One wishes he lived longer, naturally, but he lived a good life and died a good death. He lived an exemplary and full life; he was true to himself. He enjoyed genuine love and honor when it mattered: while he was still alive. For someone who didn’t court adulation, who rather tended to recoil from it, the universal celebration that attended Adelugba’s attainment of seventy years on earth in 2009 was unique, and tellingly so. He mentored at least three generations of theater professionals; it is no exaggeration to say that this was a singular achievement in the annals of Nigerian theater. Yet the question of whether the likes of him will be seen again misses the point.
Was he justly recognized? About a month before his death, following the announcement of the list of national honors by the Nigerian government, it struck some of his former students that, yet again, Adelugba’s name was missing from the list. What did/does this mean? Does one say that the recognition by his former students was far more meaningful than any official honor, which was often a matter of who remembered to pull what strings at which quarters? Was it simply a matter of a lack of a presence of mind—that what mattered to his admirers was the periodic show of hand and face, an order of things best suited to the spirit of festivals?
And how did his peers view him, in the great flow of history? During the preparation of the festschrift to mark his 70th birthday, a former colleague who was approached to contribute to the festschrift declined, noting, among other reasons, that “[Adelugba] has hardly left a body of work in print that would form the basis of any substantial comment from me.” The editors accepted this note of regrets with understanding, mindful that the notion of “a body of work in print” for a theater artist was ambiguous.
These two points—the treatment of Adelugba’s achievements as fitting for a periodic, memorial airing, like an annual festival, and the fallacy of “a body of work in print” in the career of a theater professional—seem to me to be indispensable in taking a proper measure of his legacy. Like most things connected to the life of the mind or the imagination in Nigeria, the arts are in a perplexing shape, theater most especially. We should not be fooled by the charms of Nollywood, important as those are. In fact, that Nollywood has gone off on its own steam is misleading in that it conceals how theater, for one, languishes in relative neglect. Historians of the arts may well come to the conclusion that Nigerian theater found its survival mode in cinema, as the itinerant performance mode did in theater. Nonetheless, the effervescence of the cinematic culture need not mean the attrition of theater. The point is that under the circumstances, of a relatively new artistic form (modern Nigerian theater is less than a hundred years old) suddenly facing extinction, the labors of accomplished, dedicated professionals are quick to be forgotten, especially if held in thrall to the notion of “a body of work in print.”
Annual festivals attempt to renew a society’s productive forces, and they are transient as performances. Even if they are also sufficient as performances, it seems that the current interest in the late Adelugba’s legacy ought to meet the challenge of “a body of work in print” head-on.
His contributions as director, manager, administrator, editor, and bibliographer are immense and will endure. How about a body of work on record?