July 19, 2024

Curtains fall for a pioneer as Wole Oguntokun, aka Laspapi, exits the stage

  • March 29, 2024
  • 9 min read
Curtains fall for a pioneer as Wole Oguntokun, aka Laspapi, exits the stage

* No one remembered that he was a lawyer, says NFVCB ED, Husseini

By Anote Ajeluorou

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UTTER disbelief greeted the creative and theatre community two days ago when news filtered in that the man fondly called Laspapi has exited the stage rather too early after losing battle to ill-health in faraway Canada. The silence was palpable. Wole Oguntokun is a man even his ardent critics admire for daring what was almost impossible. He literally resurrected Nigerian theatre from the dead. And he wasn’t even a trained actor; he studied law, but abandoned it for his love and passion for the stage and made capital gain out of it. Not capital gain in terms of making money; he didn’t make any, but he ignited theatrical fire in the faint-hearted, and they discovered their stage mojo again and dared to dream of making theatre performance work again in Nigeria. That was Oguntokun, aka Laspapi, the lone voice that pioneered and inspired belief in Nigeria’s theatre. And like a meteorite, he blazed his trail across Nigeria’s theatre firmament and the story never remained the same. But the curtains drew on his act too soon!

What was more: Oguntokun left on World Theatre Day, a day theatre was being celebrated globally!

Social media was understandably awash with the sad news of his passing on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. He lived from July 15, 1967 – March 26, 2024. Theatre director and founder of Pawstudios and Lagos Fringe Festival, Mr. Kenneth Uphopho, who signed a statement on behalf of Jasonvision, Renegade Theatre and Guild of Theatre Directors of Nigeria (GTD) said, “With a heavy heart, we announce the passing of Wole Oguntokun, who sadly passed on after a brief illness on March 26, 2024 in Canada where he lived and worked. We know that Wole Oguntokun influenced many creatives positively, and we are devastated to have to break this news.

“Laspapi, as he was fondly called, was an inspiration to many of us and his revolutionary contributions to the renaissance of theatre in Nigeria can never be over emphasized. Words can’t describe how much we’ll miss him. Thank you to everyone who was a good friend and colleague to Wole Oguntokun. We are forever grateful for our paths to have crossed. Details of the memorial will be shared soon as well as plans for the Industry/Artists Night. The family has asked for privacy at this moment but there will be a tribute page opened soon in his memory.

“May his gentle soul rest in perfect peace.”

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Wole Oguntokun (July 15, 1967 – March 26, 2024)

Also to respond to the news of Oguntokun’s sad passing were poets and critics, Messrs Chiedu Ezeanah and Chike Ofili, who lamented the phillistinic cultural environment that talents like Oguntokun had to work, and which eventually forced him to ‘japa’ out of the country long before the term gained currency.

“Sad news. Sad loss,” Ezeanah wailed. “Wole Oguntokun: Rest in peace. I remember the uproarious Literary Lagos Years. Surely an untimely passage. So, so sad. I am speechless. Truly shocking news. He has done so much unforgettable work. May his soul rest in peace. My condolences to his beloved family and the literary and theatre arts community that he was so intensely inspired to promote and showcase against a philistine Nigerian society that is not letting up on blanketing all of us in social and spiritual darkness. What a loss…”

For Ofili, it’s “another unbearable loss of enduring ASSET abroad! Wole Oguntokun dared to make theatre practice work in Nigeria.”

Also for the founder of Terra Kulture, Terra Theatre Arena and Bolanle Austin Peters Productions (BAP), Mrs. Bolanle Austen-Peters, who provided Oguntokun with performance space at the start of his theatre revolution, Oguntokun’s passion, daring spirit and commitment to his craft of making theatre work in Nigeria is stuff for legends. According to her, “Wole was very steadfast with us at Terra Kulture; he started in 2006 or thereabout. He was the one who started to nurture a lot of the artists we have today. He committed himself to the arts; he was a friend of Terra Kulture. I’m heart-broken. A talented theatre practitioner. We’ve lost a fantastic mind. A committed visioner, a pioneer, because he saw the future, and committed himself to it. And today we can see the result.”

The Executive Director of Nigeria Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB), Dr. Shaibu Husseini, desperately prayed to God that the news of Oguntokun’s passing be fake news, because it would be unbearable, but alas it wasn’t, and in the past three days he was still trying to process it, finding it still unbelievable that the ebullient director of Renegade Theatre and Theatre Republic was gone.

“I am still trying to process the news of the untimely passage of the prolific playwright and playmaker Wole Oguntokun whom we all affectionately called by his alias ‘laspapi’,” Husseini said in his tribute. “I have been in regular touch with Laspapi since he relocated to Canada, and nothing that he said or I heard about him pointed to the fact that he would ‘journey’ so soon to the place where there is no pain and sorrow. I kept asking ‘what happened?’ when I heard the news, and till now I still cannot come to terms with the fact that we will no longer see the all-smiling, genial and personable Laspapi physically. Wow!

“Laspapi was very prolific. The speed and energy with which he wrote, directed and produced plays made a lot of us conclude that he was divinely meant to be a distinguished member of the theatre tribe than the lawyer he was before he ventured to theatre. I mean, he was so good at theatre practice that no one remembered that he was a lawyer. I recall how, with his regular shows at Terra Kulture, he reignited the then snoozing theatre space. I used to call him a one-man theatre squad and that was because Laspapi, when he started, would write, direct, produce, market and then coordinate front office for his earlier shows. In fact, I dare say that he inspired greatly a lot of theatre producers, who started having theatre shows on the island. We will miss him. But we are consoled in the fact that he left indelible imprints in those plays that he published and in those that he either inspired or mentored. Good night, Laspapi!”

Music director, Mr. Ayo Ajayi, also mourned Oguntokun for his pioneering work in theatre, saying, “Wole Oguntokun was a trailblazer. Through the Theatre at Terra platform, he assisted in the revitalization of theatre in Nigeria, which has resulted in the development of numerous productions, producers, directors, and actors today. Although I never had the opportunity to work with him directly, other than in 2014 when he invited me to critique his Jagua Nana production for the MUSON Festival, I have seen his influence through the works he and others have done earlier, which has opened the theatre to greater innovations. Laspapi, as he was affectionately called, would be greatly missed, but his accomplishments will persist and his memory will be honoured!”

The International Writers Association (IWA) also expressed its sadness at the passing of celebrated Nigerian playwright, Wole Oguntokun, saying in a statement issued by its Acting President Wole Adedoyin, that “Oguntokun is remembered as a towering figure in African theatre, a prolific writer, and a passionate advocate for the arts. Born Oluwolé Oguntokun on July 15, 1967, Oguntokun’s life was dedicated to the stage. He excelled as a playwright, dramaturge and director. His artistic leadership was instrumental in shaping Theatre Planet Studios and Renegade Theatre, both pillars of the Nigerian theatre scene. He further extended his influence as a board member of Theaurtle, a respected Canadian theatre company.

“Oguntokun’s talents extended beyond the stage. He was a respected theatre administrator and a thoughtful newspaper columnist, his writing enriching public discourse. The world of theatre dimmed with Oguntokun’s passing on March 26, 2024, at the age of 56. He leaves behind a remarkable legacy. Oguntokun’s achievements extended internationally. At the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, he made history by directing and producing Fringe and The Tarzan Monologues with Renegade Theatre, marking the first time Nigerian plays graced this prestigious global platform.

“He was also a driving force behind three impactful MUSON Festival plays: The Gods Are Not To Blame (2006), An Ordinary Legacy (2012), and his own adaptation of Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana (2014). Oguntokun’s dedication to his craft was recognized by the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Practitioners (NANTAP), where he received the Award for Excellence in November 2012 and an Arts Patron Award in November 2013. IWA joins the global arts community in mourning the loss of Wole Oguntokun. His vibrant spirit, creative genius, and unwavering commitment to theatre will be deeply missed.”

“Wole Oguntokun, a pioneer coordinator of a raring Guild of Theatre Directors (GTD) Nigeria under the auspices of NANTAP, is gone and very painful to the community of thespians across the nation and in diaspora,” a statement by NANTAP General Secretary, Mr. Makinde Adeniran, said. “More painful because of the impact Wole Oguntokun had on emerging community of thespians. Both as writer and director of theatre, Wole Oguntokun shaped lives, inspired lives, mended lives and to complete this cycle of humanity, he courted enemies, too – the ones who would continually critique his creative works and approach.

“NANTAP would rather celebrate this quintessential creative genius who single-handedly held performance activity in the face of all when most practitioners were down to nothing during the despicable rule of late General Sani Abacha… Wole Oguntokun has done his part; we are glad that the path he laid is crystal clear in the face of all, both home and abroad!

“To this end, we say ride home gently our illustrious warrior of the Thespis family… Adieu! WO… Adieu! Laspapi! O di’gba o se!

“Wole Oguntokun was the man who dared,” remininsced stage producer and director, Mr. Bimbo Olorunmola. “He squared up to theatre practice in Nigeria where it laid prostrate and led it’s renaissance. My story as well as the stories of many others cannot be told without featuring Uncle Wole. I didn’t know him from Adam, but he opened his doors to me and walked me through the theatre profession. He was the teacher who picked up where my lecturers stopped, and oh, did I learn from him! The Nigerian theatre space is replete with such stories. Such was his contribution to Nigerian theatre and we can only hope to carry on his legacy by toeing the path he charted. His was a life of impact. It may have been a life short-lived, but it was a life well lived.

“He came, He dared and He conquered!”

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