5 things to know about the origin, structure and modern relevance of the Yoruba Alarinjo Theatre

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A little delve into the artistic beginning and practices of the people from the western part of Nigeria is inevitably bound to lead one into the discovery of the Yoruba Alarinjo Theatre. This is because this dramatic group is tied to one of the core histories of these people.

The Yoruba Alarinjo theatre has been tagged as one of the earliest forms of theatre and concert performances in the country. For as long as man has lived, dramatic institutions have always existed to entertain the people and enable them to relax after every tedious work routine has been performed.

For the early men, drawing on caves and telling stories was more like their means of entertainment. Later on, festivals, rites of passage and celebrations held in honour of gods performed the dual function of entertaining people.

However, it was not until masque theatres such as the Alarinjo came about that the entertainment industry began to take a definite shape and structure that defined and streamlined their purpose.

The Yoruba Alarinjo theatre was said to have begun from the Egungun cult founded by the Ologbin lineage Source: Tuck Magazine

Due to the sheer reason that the Alarinjo theatre which involved movement from place to place to perform served as a cornerstone that formed the building block of the well expanded industry of entertainment in Nigeria, it is very essential that it be paid a close attention. In line with this thought, here are five facts to know about the origin, structure and impact of this masque group.

1. The beginning of the beginnings: It started as a curse

Based on the very earliest account, the Alarinjo theatre was started by one of the earliest monarch of the Oyo Empire in the year 1590.

As recorded, this king, or better put, the Alaafin who at the time was named Ogbolu had proposed the movement of the capital of Oyo from Oyo Ighoho to a place called Katunga due to the continual attack by predators and overpowering armies.

The people who were already well settled in Ighoho and the seven chiefs called the Oyo Mesi did not find this decision quite pleasing so they devised a plan to stop the Alaafin from going ahead with his move. As the story goes, these seven principal councilors of the Oyo Empire purposed to go and convince the king not to make the decision to move.

But first, they sent six people who were of unique, curious appearances (crippled, blind, hagged etc.) who found their way to the palace of the king. These people were called ghost-mummers. These six men of curious appearances were made to represent each of the six Oyo Mesi that was against the decision.

The first who was an albino represented Alapinni; a leper stood for another Oyo Mesi member called Asipa; the third who had hunchback symbolised Bashorun; the fourth, a prognathus, was for Samu; a cripple took the place of Akiniku and a dwarf went for Laguna.

Given that it was believed that these ghost-mummers were gods in human form), these folks went on to prophesy doom about the intended move. At first, their plan seemed to have effect.

The Alaafin of Oyo discovered the ruse played on him and thus punished the ghost-mummers by making them mascots Source: Influencious

Unknown to them, though, the king had been advised by Ologbin Ologbojo, a royal cymbalist and member of the Egungun cult to investigate the matter before heeding their advice. The Alaafin then went on to send six hunters to look for each of the fake ghost-mummers and track down their purpose.

Before long, the dubious purpose behind their visit was established. As a punishment, Alaafin Ogbolu told the six ghost-mummers to remain as court mascots and keep performing at his pleasure.

Meanwhile, Ologbin Ologbojo became their theatrical 'director'. It was later rumoured that these six deformed people turned performers poisoned the royal cymbalist to get back at him for orchestrating their arrest.

2. The documented beginning

Although the account given below is well believed, the documented origin of the Alarinjo theatre did not come until later when a certain Hugh Clapperton wrote about it in his Journal of a Second Expedition into the Interior of Africa.

Another foreigner named Richard Lander recounted Clapperton's account in Records of Clapperton's Last Expedition to Africa. In both accounts, it was established that the king of the Oyo Empire had employed the service of a group of court performers to entertain guests who had come to celebrate with him upon his seven weeks stay in Katunga.

Kings are known to entertain guests by allowing performers to enact dramas and dances at their pleasure Source: afrikajump.wordpress.com

As expounded by Joel Adedeji, these guests were entertained by one of the travelling troupes that had already started spreading their reach on Wednesday, February 22, 1826. At that time, the performance of the wooden face masked dancer called Agbegijo was dominant.

Scholars believe that the practice of ritual, festival and ancestral worship of Oranmiyan by Sango must have provided the basis for the travelling theatre, and then, the formation of the Egungun cult led by the Ologbin lineage who were adept at dancing and acrobats is believed to be yet another fundamental part of the origin.

3. Structure: Setting, costume and performance

The Alarinjo theatre was basically characterised by its constant movement from place to place to perform skillful, entertaining display of dances, drama and worship. The people who made up this travelling troupe performed wherever they were paid to render a performance.

It was not always like this, though. Performances used to be only in the palace but as times changed, new trends were adopted and the troupe began to even perform in open places.

The Alarinjo theatre moved from closed doors to open places Source: piccsr.com

With regards to the costume, the Alarinjo troupe performed in the manner of the Italian Commedia dell'arte. What this means is that they repeated costumes, masks and exaggerated props till people were very familiar with the characters. It was like in the way anyone would know a Baba Suwe or Dejo Tufulu when they see one.

These costumes were also worn by those called stock characters who played the same role over and over again till the audience became very familiar with them.

The key parts of a typical performance done by the travelling troupes were dancing to well known forms like the orisa dance, the bata dance and the agemo dance. Then, there was the dramatic miming of mythological gods or characters like Sango, Obatala or the wise tortoise. Again, satirical dramas were aimed at displaying vices like gluttony, stealing, adultery and so on.

4. Significant impacts

The traditional Alarinjo theatre influenced a lot of theatrical movements established by contemporaries in the entertainment industry. The likes of late Baba Sala and Herbert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo are classic examples of the impacts the Alarinjo theatre made. All these theatre directors had travelling troupes.

This is a scene from one of Duro Ladipo's plays. It shows an adoption of the tenets of Alarinjo theatre. Source: Art635

Not only did late Baba Sala start a travelling troupe that entertained people in several locations, he also maintained the stock characters and costumes that was used by the oldies. It is for this reason that the king of comedy who just passed away is known for wearing a big, frameless pair of glasses, colourful suits or native wears, an exaggerated pot-belly and a magician's hat.

Late Herbert Ogunde also followed in the same path. But occasioned by the change in trends and the influx of media and technology, he adopted newer techniques while acting as founder and head of his drama group called the Ogunde Theater.

5. Modern relevance

Femi Osofisan's Women in Owu being enacted. Source: Silver screen

Despite the huge influence technology and new media innovations have had upon theatre performances and the entertainment industry as a whole, glints of what the Alarinjo theatre stood for can still be perceived.

Stand up comedians and the enactment of plays by renowned playwrights like Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Tunde Kelani, Kunle Afolayan and a host of others have reflected the deep, resonant attributes of the Alarinjo theatre so that it can be said that what once started out as a punishment for some six transgressors of the law has turned out to be a blessing to this generation and many more generations to come.

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