‘Professor Ukala is not dead’
By Anote Ajeluorou
IT’S no longer news that folkist, dramatist and professor of theatre studies, Sam Ukala, has joined his ancestors after spending 73 years on mother-earth. His death is regarded as a huge loss to the arts and culture community where he spent his writerly and scholarly years contributing in the genres of drama, short story writing and academic administration. His prolific creative writing career won him the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA/British Council) drama prize with Akpakaland in 1989 and The Nigerian Prize for Literature in 2014 with his ‘folk-script’ Iredi War. Delta State University, Abraka, was Ukala’s last place of scholarly and administrative engagement before his passing on September 13, 2021.
As expected, a flurry of tributes has continued to pour in for Ukala, what he meant for the culture community and the vacuum his passing would create.
For professor of English and Literature, Advisory Board chair of The Nigeria Prize for Literature and personal friend of the late dramatist, Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo, “The sad news of the demise of Prof. Sam Ukala came to most of us as a shock and a painful blow. This is because we were not prepared for it. We interacted with him recently and he seemed as fit as a fiddle. So what happened? What is happening? We are losing many of our accomplished and brilliant friends too soon. There is no time these days to say goodbye. We are here today and gone tomorrow! Sometimes you wonder about this life and ask yourself the import of it. No one knows tomorrow; we can only trudge on, praying to live long enough to fulfill our destiny and make a difference in people’s life.
“This is indeed where we can find consolation as we mourn the death of our friend and colleague, Prof. Sam Ukala. We thank God for his life, for the life of purpose he lived. Indeed, he lived long enough to make great contributions to the fields of scholarship and creativity. He was a notable playwright, poet, teacher, theorist and researcher. An award-winning writer, he inspired and mentored many students, early-career academics and researchers. He won The Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2014 with his play, Iredi War, and was a Fellow of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), an association he served and nurtured with great commitment.
“Prof. Ukala left a great legacy and will always be remembered by those who benefited from his work, service and generosity. May his soul rest in perfect peace and may God console his family and all of us who are still on this side of eternity. Amen.”
“And so, our friend and colleague, Sam, has joined the list, this ever-lengthening list of casualties fallen to the axe of our unrelenting Grim Reaper!” so submits emeritus professor of drama and poet, Prof. Femi Osofisan. “Good bye; sleep in peace. He was one of our talented dramatists, one of the original minds who rejected the colonial Ur-text that sought to impose the Western paradigm on us, and fought to replace it with an alternative based on African traditional praxis which he named Folkism. Well, he’s gone now. But we shall continue to remember him, if only at those moments when our sense of cultural pride needs to be reaffirmed and re‐asserted. Goodbye.”
Another poet and university teacher, Prof. Tony Afejuku, was no less heartbroken when news of Ukala’s passing hit him at his University of Benin, Benin City, base.
According to Afejuku, who paid tribute to Ukala and two other friends who recently passed – Prof. David Ker and Mr. Emma Okocha -; “Sam Ukala was an Mbiri, Ika-born, Delta State’s think-tank personage of our governor, who was well beloved by the former senator. He was equally an esteemed fellow writer of my generation for whom I had (and still have) considerable regard. He was a poet, short story writer and playwright and dramatist, professional and literary nouns which justly cemented his standing as an eminent literary figure in our clime. As an academic and scholar of dramatic arts/literature, Professor Sam Ukala of the Nsukka school of English and later of the Ibadan where he read for his Ph.D. in Theatre Arts was a folklorist whose circumstances compelled him to fabricate history and mythology. I had written on his poetry and I have a forthcoming essay on his short stories, which he was aware of but which unfortunately he will no longer read and admire as he admired a great deal my “The Love Poems of Sam Ukala” which Chinua Achebe’s Okike published a long time ago well before Achebe vanished from us. Sam Ukala had also generously referred to my writings in his spoken and written words. We shared a bond that was a bond despite at times our mild disagreements. Let me cut short my Sam Ukala’s focus here. I am bleeding severely.”
His former colleague and friend at DELSU, Prof. Gordini G. Darah, also pays flowing tribute to Ukala, who was also a shinning star of the Niger Delta struggle for equality and environmental justice.
According a release by the body, signed by Prof. Darah, “The Executive Committee of Pan-Niger Delta Forum (Pandef) mourns the death of Professor Sam Ukala. He was a creative genius, scholar and administrator. In his plays and scholarly works, Professor Ukala always proudly projected the traditions and aspirations of the Ika nation and all other nationalities in the Niger Delta. He used his intellectual resources to fight for justice and equity in the region. This is evident in his play A Harvest of Ghosts that exposes environmental genocide in the oil industry. Ukala’s Iredi War play celebrates the struggle of Ika nationalists against British colonial oppressors in the early 20th century. For this historic play, he won The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2014. With his artistic works, academic, administrative engagement and social activism, Professor Ukala brought global honour and recognition to Ika people, DELSU, Niger Delta and Africans all over the world. The legacy will live on glowingly.
“Professor Ukala was Dean of Arts in DELSU and promoted scholarship through improved Faculty Journal Abraka Humanities Review. He was pioneer Delta State chairman of ANA and edited anthologies of new writings. He is truly a man of the stage and promoted the tradition of total theatre of performance arts associated with iconic playwrights – Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Kalu Uka, and Femi Osofisan. Zulu Sofola, Sam Ukala, and Tess Osonye Onwueme are the leading Anioma-born dramatists from Delta State whose folklore-rich works have redefined the aesthetics of modern Nigerian theatre and dramaturgy.”
Also, the current Dean, Faculty of Arts, DELSU, Prof. Sunny Awhefeada, gives a telling and intense historical perspective to the man Ukala and his sterling writing that define historical epochs in Nigeria.
According to Prof. Awhefeada; “Samuel Chinedu Ukala, professor of theatre arts, playwright, theatre director, actor, poet, short story writer, theorist, folklorist and university administrator who turned 73 April 18, 2021, had been part of Nigeria’s literary and critical ferment. Best known as a dramatist, Ukala burst onto the Nigerian stage as a university undergraduate with his 1976 play titled Whiteness is Barren, which he directed and acted in. Ukala was educated at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he took a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1977 and at the University of Ibadan where he obtained Master’s and doctoral degrees in Theatre Arts. Nsukka and Ibadan were significant in the making of Ukala as a writer. He met the artistic recrudescence at Nsukka after the civil war and ended up becoming one of its exponents. His years at Ibadan were to complement the dramatic insemination at Nsukka. Ibadan brought Ukala in contact with Professors Joel Adedeji, Dapo Adelugba, Isidore Okpewho, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan and others who made the University of Ibadan artistic and academic milieu to bubble over at that time.
“Ukala’s trove of plays is an exciting and enchanting repertoire which limns the primeval and explicates the modern in its interrogation of contemporary Nigerian reality. His dramatic sensibility is firmly moored in indigenous theatrical traditions as well as foreign models. It is in Ukala’s plays that the storyteller (narrator) draws an innocent audience into a rite it didn’t bargain for. It is also in his plays that one hears the echoes of Bertolt Brecht in collaboration with Ukala’s storytelling ancestors thus privileging the communal essence of drama.
“To evaluate and locate Ukala’s plays correctly, one must of necessity be acquainted with his theoretical construct known as “folkism”. In giving a defining character to “folkism”, Ukala says it is “the tendency to base literary plays on the history, culture, and concerns of the folk… and to compose and perform them in accordance with African conventions for composing and performing the folktale”. Some of the plays by earlier Nigerian dramatists such as Soyinka, Rotimi and Osofisan appropriate some of the touchstones in folkism, but they did not reflect its full manifestation. However, Ukala’s plays have again and again demonstrated their fidelity to the poetics of the African folktale medium. What is engendered by the experimentation with folkism is what Ukala calls folkscript. A reading of the plays of Sam Ukala often approximates a story telling session and leaves the reader with a therapeutic feeling of having just participated in one.
“His published plays The Slave Wife (1982), The Log in Your Eye (1986), Akpakaland (1990), The Trials of Obiamaka Elema (1992), Break a Boil (1992), Two Plays: The Placenta of Death and The Last Heroes (1997), Akpakaland and Other Plays (2004) and Iredi War (2014) demonstrate a keen awareness of the historical tendencies they dramatize. Whether the encounter with the plays is on the stage or in cold print, they elicit the same empathy with Ukala’s profound sense of humanity. His recourse to folklore which he theoretically codified as folkism remains the binding cord which knits the plays into one aesthetic continuum with the Nigerian experience. It is to Ukala’s artistic credit that he is able to delicately negotiate contemporary experience through the folktale medium despite its being primordial.
“Three of the plays are central to the thematic and technical configuration of his dramatic oeuvre. The plays are The Slave Wife (1982), Akpakaland (1990) and Iredi War (2014). It is instructive to observe that the time of publication of the three plays in a way indicate their strategic import. While The Slave Wife can be said to formally launch his career as a playwright, Akpakaland occupies an approximately median position which logically signposts his maturity as a playwright even though The Slave Wife is by all standard is a tour de force. The Slave Wife uses the folktale motif to dramatize the questions of identity, hegemony, and subversion. A simple play on the surface, it makes a permanent statement on the power struggle and tension that now exists in many African states including Nigeria. The play speaks to ethnic jingoism and supremacists tendencies inherent in the power dynamics in contemporary societies. The questions of injustice, oppression, exploitation which are central to all of Ukala’s plays are given significant focus here. Akpakaland unrelentingly pursues the concerns of The Save Wife using similar tropes and techniques. But in Akpakaland, the stakes are higher to reflect an urgent need for engagement with the contemporary ogre of abuse of power. Akpakaland passes for any African country of the 1980s and 1990s. Faced with many socio-economic and political crises which threaten the state, Akpaka the depraved ruler gets manipulated by his wife Fulama, his authority gets undermined and the play’s resolution envisions a revolution. On stage in this drama of contemporary African political intrigues are looming spectre of misrule, corruption, injustice, exploitation, class conflict and the struggle for power and resources. Remarkable in this play is the definitive role played by women who are not only visible but given authoritative voices in the court of power.”
Dr. Obari Gomba of the Department of English Studies, University of Port Harcourt, says though Ukala was self-effacing, he produced works that spoke volumes that would resonate in years to come.
According to Gomba, “Before Professor Sam Ukala won The Nigeria Prize for Literature, he had established a reputation for academic excellence that slightly masked his prowess as a creative writer. But those who truly knew him well knew that his creative writing was as remarkable as his service to the academia.
“He was always calm and sure in his carriage. It was a life of depth that was not given to self-promotion in an environment where creativity is often mistaken for loudness and/or hysteria.
“His contribution to Nigerian literature will endure through the seasons. His works will grow in stature and significance, over and above his self-effacement.”
Also, his friend and academic peer, Prof. Austine Amanze Akpuda, has this to say about Ukala, “Professor Sam Ukala has dominated theatre practice and discourse since the mid 1970s. He has been an actor; director; producer; playwright; critic; lecturer; theorist and much more. Our very cordial and professional relationship stretches back to the last 27 years and has borne varied fruits of his contributing to a Festschrift I edited in 2001 and his invitation to me to contribute to two out of the three Festschrifts organized to celebrate him. Professor Sam Ukala was almost ALWAYS a centre of attraction at the annual ANA conventions and the other literary conferences we attended together. He had written himself into literary immortality.”
Also mourning Ukala is a fellow wayfarer in theatre and Dean, Faculty of Humanities, Social and Management Sciences, Edwin Clark University, Kiagbodo, Delta State, Prof. Julie Okoh.
Prof. Okoh said, “SO sad! So sad! So sad! It is so very sad! Without warning, without saying goodbye, Samuel Chinedu Ukala, Professor Emeritus of Theatre Arts, Delta State University, Abraka, born on April 18, 1948, after decades of rendering meritorious service to humanity, departed to the nether world on Monday September13, 2021 after a brief illness, leaving everybody close to him in a state of profound shock. For he looked very healthy and radiant with his ever sunny smile hovering around his face in the photos he recently posted on Facebook.
“A man of many parts, he was a playwright, actor, theatre director, film producer, poet, short story writer, theorist and university administrator. In each of these areas, he left remarkable footprints. However, he is best known as a dramatist. His first play, Whiteness is Barren was written in 1976 while he was an undergraduate student at the Nigerian University, Nsukka, where he took a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, before going to the University of Ibadan where he obtained Master and Doctoral Degrees in Theatre Arts. His published plays include The Slave Wife (1982), The Log in Your Eye (1986), Akpakaland (1990), The Trials of Obiamaka Elema (1992), Break a Boil (1992), Two plays: The Placenta of Death and The Last Heroes (1997), Akpakaland and other Plays (2004) and Iredi War (2014).
“In all these plays, the question of injustice, oppression, exploitation and abuse of power is a recurrent motif. Although his dramaturgy is a mélange of both foreign and indigenous folkloric elements, he was a great promoter of African traditional aesthetics, a preoccupation that led to his formulation of the theory of “Folkism” which he defined as “the tendency to base literary plays on indigenous history and culture, and to compose and perform them in accordance with African folktale conventions”.
“As an academic, Sam Ukala was a phenomenal professor of Theatre Arts studies who mentored and supervised numerous Bachelor, Masters and PhD degree holders. He also served as an external examiner to many universities for both undergraduate final year project defence, and post-graduate dissertation and thesis defence. In all these activities, his mentees and supervisees always eulogized his generosity with fatherly advice, direction and materials to them. Diligent, meticulous and painstakingly thorough in his supervision and examination, Sam Ukala taught students the value of perseverance, endurance and hard work. In fact, he was able to combine very admirably thoroughness with kindness.
“As dean of faculty, he was very resourceful, selfless and hardworking. He initiated faculty seminars and encouraged participation in conferences. By so doing, he motivated his colleagues to unrelentingly struggle for accelerated advancement in their career, despite the unfavourable condition of service. He was a team leader who inspired both students and staff to be committed in all their endeavours.
“As an active member of Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists (SONTA), he contributed immensely to the growth and sustenance of Nigerian theatre practice over the years and also served the association in many capacities. He was also a member of Nigerian Literary Association (NLA). He would be forever remembered for his approach to performance study especially for his “folkism” theory. He was a friendly and committed academic that colleagues and students easily relate with.
“Sam Ukala was a professor of international repute and winner of several awards including: Commonwealth fellowship award, the 1989 ANA/British Council Prize for Drama, 2000 ANA Prize for Prose Fiction, the prestigious Nigeria Prize for Literature. He was conferred Fellow of Theatre Arts (fta), SONTA Fellowship Award (Fsonta), Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL) award. He has left a vacuum in the Nigerian literary scene that would be difficult to fill.
“It is my prayer that may the Almighty God grant Emeritus Professor Sam Ukala eternal rest and let perpetual light shine upon him. And may God also grant members of his family the fortitude to bear the irreparable loss! Amen.”
For Prof. Mabel I. E. Evwierhoma, Ukala’s mentee at the University of Abuja, Abuja, the pain of Ukala’s passing is so deep, as she pours out her soul in poetic idiom just to find a handle for her pain. And she aptly titles her tribute, ‘Professor Ukala is not dead’, to emphasize the undying spirit of the artists that was Ukala’s:
The cliché “to live in the hearts of those who love you is not to die”, is very true as regards the demise of theatre scholar-artist Professor Sam Ukala. Many people mourn the literary colossus for several reasons: As teacher, mentor, father, peer, friend amidst several other roles that he actively played without prevarication or pretence. The peoples’ professor and man of the people did not just facilitate the finding of paths for his students in whatever inchoate form they entered the university, he helped to shape the future of many, often through protests by the future beneficiaries of his kind and wise intervention. Ukala the humanist helped many students, colleagues and community members to get to the top of their careers or dreams. His eminent contributions traverse the fields of playmaking and playwriting, directing, film, composition, publishing, and others where he not only carved an indelible niche for himself, but put Nigeria on the global map of creativity. His membership of different associations and commune of creatives bear his positive involvement and mark of facilitation in different professional groups and assisted to fashion and achieve the corporate vision. In many academic associations, he inspired and assisted many towards transformation for several decades. This links him to references to his person as an intellectual of assorted means of relevant and committed expressions. Professor Ukala loved pedagogic industry and encouraged such. His sense of humour with added wit was unassailable and these were traits that he used to upbraid, teach and mentor. Indeed, in Ukala, was the guru who guided with the future in sight, for the mentee to fulfil purpose.
“Ukala was like most of the heroes in his plays, especially the omniscient narrator, whom he ascribed roles to narrate past and present events and even project into the future. His theory of Folkism bears credence to his inward look for knowledge production and dissemination from an African perspective. This is a personal tribute and not a space for a critical exegesis of Ukala’s works. So I leave his works out of here. Since the announcement of his demise in his academic expanse, even as Professor Emeritus many people have been affected as the beacon of support in their quotidian life is no more. Even his colleagues involved in the processes in place for the newly established universities in Delta State would feel his absence.
“In Professor Ukala was that astute ability to fuse town and gown through his creative works and engagement with different echelons of power in the education sector and general governance. Ukala was friend to the mighty and lowly in society. Some of us are still at a loss over his shyness in the sphere of politics because we often felt that he would have coasted to victory were he to contest for any elective post in his constituency. This great and visionary son of Delta is not dead. He lives on.
“I am sorely saddened by Professor Ukala’s demise and would miss the erudite man of letters and ideologue for several reasons. His interest in my creative enterprise especially poetry and drama helped to push most of the poems that I wrote during the COVID-19 lockdown to reality. With two other mentors in the arts, Professor Ukala saw that the lines were to enjoy visibility and his outfit is to publish the collection. He encouraged me to ventilate my ideas, no matter how simple they were. This desire to see the future and drive towards it was also what he created in other mentees. My scholarship benefitted from his guidance in many ways especially his query of my standpoints in other for them to gain further sharpness of focus and clarity. My family recognises his role as one of those many father figures that I have relied on for many years in my scholastic and other endeavours. This last point creates a deep gash in my being for the many fathers of the writer of this tribute is less by one. I feel a personal loss and only the realisation that the cliché above holds true in this circumstance quietened me.
“I wish Mrs. Ukala, her children, the entire Ukala family the strength to bear this irreplaceable loss. Their patriarch or Diokpa as I referred to him, lives on in his art and in our hearts.
“Indeed, if only the dour cutter and harvester had not done his worst, another tale would have flowed from our pens in celebration of the builder Ukala. With grief and sorrow, I penned these lines which have defied flow and are in formation:
Homage to Ukala
If only the reaper, grim as he is
With his scythe pierced the roof
Or cut off a portion of the top,
Or pulled some sides off the eaves,
awning and all,
and did not become the ripper;
There would been room enough
for the ink pot, top, quill and-
the heads and hands of ready writers
in the gathering of the feast of letters
that we return to,
like the watering hole.
Why he did not perforate the roof,
Or make the eaves and awning want repair,
Or hole-ridden, beats one:
‘Twould have been better for us to complain of,
shiver from the draught of cold,
or the smouldering heat;
the flogging by the rain
despite the pall of gloom cast upon the homestead
even as misshapen as the covering would have become.
we would have counted the stars
through the holes,
wiped the sweat
with our weather-beaten apparel
and waxed lines from the roofless experience,
or baled water gladly
from the lashing rain,
despite the makeshift cover.
What becomes of us
now that the rooftop is whipped away?
Without the covering,
we huddle into corners,
seeking spaces for refuge
to form lines of consolation
with diluted ink.
Tear-faced and askance,
We look aghast:
The cover for our commonality is gone,
the halcyon days of erudition truncated-
written off, overwritten
and run aground.
Alas! The scythe in futility,
tried to scratch off one name
But O! it remains legible.