African playwright headlines York’s summer theatre Institute

Femi Osofisan, one of Africa’s leading playwrights and a professor at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, has been the artist-in-residence in the third annual Summer Institute in Theatre Studies. The institute, which began July 6, continues until Aug. 13 at York University.

During his six-week residency, Osofisan has been working closely with students in York’s Graduate Program in Theatre Studies. He is teaching a course on the politics in black African theatre. Students enrolled in the summer institute are interested in understanding Africa’s cultural history and contemporary politics, the origins of theatre in Africa and the work of some of its current dramatists. The author of some 60 plays, Osofisan will also direct students in scenes from several of his works. 

Right: Femi Osofisan

The institute will culminate with an informal showing of scenes from four of his plays: The Oriki of a Grasshopper, Once Upon Four Robbers, The Chattering and the Song and The Engagement (an adaptation of Chekhov’s A Marriage Proposal). Staged by Osofisan with his York students, the free, public performance will take place Aug. 12 at 2:30pm in 207 Accolade East Building.

Ranging from the political to parables to one-act comedies, each of the plays represents a different aspect of Osofisan’s work. Essentially a Brechtian writer with a keen interest in social issues, Osofisan writes riveting dramas that often offer the audience an opportunity to affect the play’s outcome or to make specific choices about the characters. Many of his plays combine music, dance and spoken word.

In addition to his work as a playwright, Osofisan is a prolific novelist, poet and cultural critic. His plays have been produced in more than a dozen countries including Canada, the United States, Britain and Australia, as well as many African nations including Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Lesotho. Among the literary awards and commendations he has won are prizes from the Association of Nigerian Authors for both literature (1983) and poetry (1987). In 2004 he was awarded his country’s highest academic prize, the Nigerian National Order of Merit.

“We are genuinely honoured to have an artist of his stature working with us,” says Professor Don Rubin, director of York’s graduate programs in theatre studies and organizer of the Summer Institute in Theatre Studies. “Osofisan is the most important dramatist of what has been called the second generation of Nigeria’s modern theatre – the generation that followed Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka.”

His work includes aspects of theatre that are significantly misunderstood in the West, including the use of dance and music, which is often blended with spiritual performance in African tradition. In Osofisan’s hands, these elements are fused with modern, even avant-garde, literary and theatrical forms from the West to create works that have the ability to revision and re-energize western theatrical forms, as well as to change minds.

Above: African playwright Femi Osofisan (centre) directs students in York’s Summer Institute in Theatre Studies

“His work subverts theatrical and social norms and leaves the notion of political change in the hands of the audience,” says Rubin. “That’s dangerous as well as artistically exciting.”

A theatre historian, writer and critic, Rubin served as executive editor of the critically acclaimed six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre (WECT), the largest international cooperative project in the history of cultural publishing. The WECT volume on African theatre was hailed by the London Times Higher Education Supplement as “a significant achievement…indispensable for anyone interested in either African culture or in modern theatre.”

Established in 2007, York’s Summer Institute in Theatre Studies brings leading national and international theatre artists and scholars together with graduate students doing applied research in theatre studies. Previous topics and guests of the institute include The Greek Theatre, directed by Regina Kapetankis of the National Theatre of Greece, and Brecht: Theory in Practice with Johanna Schall, a leading German director and granddaughter of Bertolt Brecht.

Graduate students from other programs and institutions also attend York’s Summer Institute in Theatre Studies. For more information, contact the Graduate Program in Theatre Studies at or call 416-736-5172.