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Emmanuel Gladstone Olawale Rotimi was born on April 13, 1938, the son of a Yoruba father from western Nigeria and an Ijaw mother from Rivers State in the Niger Delta of eastern Nigeria. His father, principal of the Engineering Training School of the Ports Authority in Lagos, often directed plays, and his mother had her own dance troupe. The young Rotimi took part in some amateur plays directed by his father, making his stage debut at the age of four. This tradition of family involvement in dramatic performance continued throughout his life. Rotimi met his wife, Hazel Mac Guadreau, a white woman, at Boston University when they were both undergraduates. She was always involved in his plays—on stage or backstage. A talented musician in her own right, she led the chorus in productions of If, while Kole Rotimi, Ola’s son, has appeared in a principal role in the same play. She died a few months before her husband in May, 2000.

Ola Rotimi attended primary school in Port Harcourt in eastern Nigeria and the Methodist Boys High School in Lagos, Nigeria’s capital. Capable in four languages—English, Ijaw, Yoruba, and Pidgin—the playwright Rotimi drew on his rich linguistic heritage: Although his plays are written in English, they contain a smattering of the other three languages as well, and his English is not an imitation of the language spoken in Oxford or Boston; rather, it is alive with the rhythms, the aphorisms, and the pulse of Nigerian English. His later plays increasingly included African languages and a Nigerian version of Pidgin English in their dialogue, although English remained the main language.

From 1959 until 1966, Rotimi studied in the United States. He received a Nigerian Federal Government scholarship to attend Boston University, where he majored in playwriting and directing, after which he attended Yale on a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship. Receiving his master of arts degree from Yale in 1966, he returned to Nigeria to become senior research fellow at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ife. While living in Ife (now renamed Ile-Ife), in the heart of Yorubaland, he familiarized himself with Yoruba oral tradition, including various musical forms that he was to inculcate into his plays. During his tenure there, he directed the university theater company, the Ori-Olokun Players. This company was invited by the French government in 1971 to the World Festival of Theatre in the city of Nancy in eastern France. Rotimi left Ife and moved to the University of Port Harcourt, where he directed his plays at the University Theater, The Crab. Using both student actors and trained actors from the Arts Council of Rivers State, he brought the vibrancy of his art to the Port Harcourt area. From 1982 to 1984, Rotimi was dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Port Harcourt. His play Hopes of the Living Dead was first performed at the University of Port Harcourt theater in 1985.

In April, 1992, Rotimi retired from teaching in order to found his production company, African Cradle Theatre, or ACT. Initially, the Nigerian International Bank promised to subsidize Rotimi’s company, and Rotimi launched ACT with a production of his absurdist play, Holding Talks, in Lagos in September, 1992. Rotimi’s project to take his historical play, Hopes of the Living Dead, on tour across Nigeria failed because of a lack of funding. The lack of economic support or independent sponsorship also led to the folding of ACT. Even though his satirical play, Man Talk, Woman Talk , played to a packed and enthusiastic audience in 1995, Rotimi became disillusioned...

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with the corrupt dictatorial regime of Nigerian general Sani Abacha, who hanged Rotimi’s fellow playwright, Ken Saro-Wiwa, for his a political activism in 1995.

In 1995, Rotimi, who has been described as diminutive in size but magnificent in talent, accepted a position as the Hubert H. Humphrey visiting professor of international studies and dramatic arts and dance at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He taught at Macalester until 1997, often producing his own plays with great enthusiasm.

After the death of Abacha and the return of democratic rule to Nigeria at the end of 1998, Rotimi returned and became a professor at Cbafemi Awolowo University in lle-Ife. He died of a heart attack on August 18, 2000.

Rotimi spoke English, Yoruba, Ijaw, Igbo, Hausa, and Pidgin but wrote primarily in English. In 1989, at the Talawa Theatre’s revival of The Gods Are Not to Blame, at London’s Riverside Studios, Rotimi explained, “I believe that in Nigeria’s multicultural situation writers should be less partisan. So I write in English. But I try all the time to use simple words and introduce the speech patterns and cadences of Yoruba villagers.” His later plays, notably If and Hopes of the Living Dead, make use of Nigerian names and proverbs.


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