A sudden burst of confusion overwhelmed the belly of the vast hall, yielding a cacophony of cries and shrieks of agony, furiously stampeding feet and… then blackout!!! In no time, the ambience of the hall which moments ago had been a spot for fun had become
a site of anguish. In the aftermath of the pandemonium, nine tiny bodies lay on the ground, while fume of sweat and blood ruled the atmosphere. Emergency rescue operation by some of the survivors of the stampede brought the nine prostrate bodies to the open foyer. They were rushed to the nearby hospital – two were confirmed dead, seven other young bodies suffered various degrees of wounds and had to stay days in the hospital.
Dateline, May 1992. The film Ayanmo (Destiny) was being screened, the workers at the box office had — as was characteristic of their corrupt operations — oversold tickets; the 5000-seater Main Bowl was over-stuffed with eager patrons of the films of the doyen of Nigerian theatre, Hubert Ogunde. In the course of the film, the poorly-maintained but over-worked chillers in the hall gave way, leading eventually to various incidences that became a violent disruption and later claimed those two lives.
Again, official greed and avarice have triumphed, leading to death of the young. The indecorous action of the commercial office of the Theatre, symptomatic of the general malaise that reigned in the operations of Nigeria’s prime cultural edifice, had inflicted bruises of varying degrees on the bodies and souls of the then usually enthusiastic patrons of the Theatre’s programmes.
The people fled from the site of death; abandoned it to its dark songs and fatalistic destiny.
The tragic incidence led to the closure of the Main Bowl of the National Theatre, and the gradual decay of the edifice — a supposedly awesome architectural piece –- borrowed perhaps senselessly from temperate Bulgaria, and planted in tropical Lagos — but which even as dysfunctional as it had been — had since 1975 when it was opened –played host to the best of Nigeria artistic and cultural expressions.
There is a complex web of metaphors and ironies trailing the story of the National Theatre itself; and these ostensibly tie in to the inexplicably depressive narrative of Nigeria itself –- a resource-rich nation with little sense of financial discipline and planning decorum. Recall that the Theatre was built in the era of recklessness when, according to a senior member of the military junta in power then, ‘Money is not our (Nigeria’s) problem, but how to spend it’. Thus, it was possible to peek at the Palace for Culture and Sports in Varna, and just import it bones, muscles and contradictions!!!
It made sense to install a facility meant for temperate region, where air-conditioning system is not necessarily a compulsion, and plant it in a strikingly hot climate, where energy supply needed to power air-conditioning system is next to nil; and where maintenance culture is never a favoured tradition.
Yes, it is understandable why the metaphor of death has since that 1992 event hung on not just the 5000-seater Main Bowl but on the National Theatre itself. It was as if the occurence was a foreboding of the gradual death of the once-flourishing National Theatre as a place for communal sharing. In years gone by, the Theatre facility, the only one of its type in an Art infrastructure-drought land that Nigeria is, had clamped up, closing up itself, and shutting out patrons and artists who ought to make its belly rumble consistently with nourishment. There had indeed been moments, no years, of renewed dreams and vigours, especially in the period 2006 to 2009, when there was indeed strong effort to revive the facility by fixing its many leakages and depressions. But the pang of death continued to haunt the soul of the culture empire and the process of rebirth was truncated by poli-trickians in the public service fuelled by their insatiable greed and graft. Since then, the Theatre has sunk deeper into distress, moreso in the regime of one who infamously claimed that he was merely a rent-collector deployed to manage (ruin, perhaps) the edifice.
Yet, the trajectory of the National Theatre can/should not be divorced from that of the nation, or the fate of the continent. Here, in this land of forlorn hope and dream deferred or denied, rulers are never leaders; are never visionaries; are never planners; are never considerate of the collective good. Rulership is occult; Government is secrecy… the People are stranded at the borders of national wellbeing. Art which liberates and guarantees access of participation to the citizens, cannot be given free reign to flower… it must be shut in for its flourishing is dangerous to the contentment of the ruling class.
And so, unlike its sibling in Varna, which comely welcomes its patrons with open arms, the National Theatre and its once-precious Main Bowl, remain shut-in, inaccessible, clamped, damped, sad, depressed, unreachable, untouchable.. unimaginable… a constant prowler in the corridor of death.