Akinwale: A Stellar Performer on the Stage of Life

Last Sunday, September 13, 2020, the University of Ilorin community as a microcosm of Nigeria was thrown into a mourning mode. This was on account of the death of Prof. Ayobami Olubunmi Akinwale, a former Dean of Arts and one of the most dynamic theatre scholars and practitioners that Nigeria has ever produced. What a tragic loss to the Humanities! What a major loss to humanity!

It is to Prof. Akinwale’s immortal credit that those who knew him as a versatile actor outside the academia might not know he was a professor and those who knew him as a professor in the academia might not know how impactful and celebrated he was in the Nigerian movie industry, Nollywood. In this cerebral scholar, respected professional and award-winning thespian, the town and the gown had a remarkable convergence. He lived a robust life both academically and professionally serving at various times as a teacher, producer, broadcaster, voice-over artist, On-Air Personality, administrator, compere, scholar, playwright, director, orator, singer, dancer and drummer as a quintessence of total theatre practice.

A resourceful theatre sociologist with an ebullient physical presence and a compelling baritone voice that commanded the attention of any given audience, Ayo Akinwale’s journey to prominence began as far back as 1964 when he debuted as a teenager in television drama some time before he acted in 1966 in Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, D. O. Fagunwa’s 1938 classic novel later translated by Wole Soyinka in 1968 as A Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga. His performance as Imodoye left indelible impressions in the minds of the audience and secured him a place in subsequent school productions.

Though he was a science student, his artistic versatility would make him a regular member of his schools’ Dramatic Societies, whether at Methodist High School, Ibadan, or Molusi College, Ijebu-Igbo. It is remarkable that at the two secondary schools, Ayo Akinwale’s brilliance and excellence made him emerge as Senior Prefect. As a science teacher at Ilora Grammar School, the theatre in his blood made him to be in charge of the school’s dramatic society, a situation that compelled his friend to obtain materials for him to study Arts subjects on his own, which enabled him to study at the University of Ibadan, where he bloomed like a flower in spring, acting in major productions in Nigeria, Europe, North America and Asia. At Ibadan, the boy became a man by obtaining his Diploma, first degree, second degree and Ph.D. from the Department of Theatre Arts.

This admirable scholar in his glistening career contributed a lot to theatre scholarship, radio drama, television drama, stage theatre as well as films and home videos. He worked with the late Prof. J. A. Adedeji, whose Nigerian Showcase Ensemble afforded him the opportunities of performing in the US, UK, Holland, Germany and Japan. He also worked with Prof. Dapo Adelugba in the production of Wale Ogunyemi’s Langbodo just as he was with Prof. Ola Rotimi in the production of Rotimi’s well-acclaimed Ovoramwen Nogbaisi, where he was also the lead actor. Before then, as far back as 1972, he had joined the Alebiosu Theatre of Pa Adebayo Faleti which made him traverse the length and breadth of Yorubaland thrilling many communities. Prof. Akinwale’s glorious moment, by his own admission, was when he was on stage in 2003 to perform in Abuja during the visit of over 200 Heads of State to Nigeria for the Commonwealth Heads of State meeting, a feeling that was akin to his first international stage performance in Philadelphia, USA, in the early 80s.

Prof. Akinwale joined the services of the University of Ilorin in 1985 after a string of career stints as a teacher, broadcaster and lecturer but my personal relationship with him began in 2008. Then, as the Head of Information/Corporate Affairs of the University, Prof. Akinwale waltzed into my office one bright morning holding his award. I recognised him instantly, stood and offered him a seat. He was elated to announce his recognition as the best actor in indigenous films category of the African Movie Academy Association (AMAA) awards of the year. I appreciated his coming and was glad to report the news to the University community in Unilorin Bulletin (of Monday, July 30, 2008 p.4) with his photograph well-inserted in the story, which I headlined “Diadem for Akinwale, Most Outstanding Actor”.

I would subsequently relate more with Prof. Akinwale as part of the functions of the Ceremonials Committee as he was the University orator. His inaugural lecture, “And the Journey Begins…The Travails of a Theatre Sociologist”, delivered on April 29, 2010 was a show-stopping PPP (by which I mean professorial presentation and performance) as it attracted dignitaries and the public at large to the University. There, quite unusually, not only was the theory of theatre sociology dissected, the presenter himself performed, turning the podium to a stage, as the appreciative audience was electrified further by the relevant clips of his own dramatic odyssey projected on the giant screen. In celebrating the stellar performance of the astute academic and top-notch theatre professional, a book edited by AbdulRasheed Adeoye, The Dramaturgy of a Theatre Sociologist: Festschrift in Honour of Ayo Akinwale, was published by the Department of the Performing Arts, University of Ilorin, in 2012.

Prof. Akinwale was the Dean of Arts when I became Ag Director of the Centre for Peace and Strategic Studies in 2013 and his joy knew no bounds. Our interactions at the time opened my eyes to the relevance of theatre and drama to the promotion of peace and harmony in the Nigerian society and the world at large. As Dean, he accorded the Centre his full support as he was gratified that a member of his Faculty was in that position.

At another plane, I had additional opportunity of drinking from the fountain of his cross-cutting academic, professional and general experiences as a member of first Board of the University radio, Unilorin 89.3 FM, the Chairman of which he was between January 2015 and August 2020. At every meeting we had, the teacher-performer-orator garnished the proceedings with his real life experiences in the media as a way of making the board, the radio station and the university at large soar to greater heights.

Born to the royal family of Pa M. A. Akinwale, and a grandson to High Chief Emmanuel Akinwale, the late Osi Olubadan of Ibadanland, Prof. Ayobami Olubunmi Akinwale, a former Chairman of the Oyo State Council for Arts and Culture, was a terrific actor on the stage of life. It is destiny that he would quit the stage while the ovation was loudest as he was preparing to retire from the services of the University.

May the Almighty God comfort his family, console the university community and grant everyone to whom Prof. Akinwale meant so such all over the world the fortitude to bear the loss. Adieu!