IT SEEMS unthinkable that both the introduction of creative arts into the educational curriculum of Sierra Leone and the 25th anniversary celebrations of the pioneering Tabule Theatre Company will take place later this year without the physical presence of the playwright Dele Charley.
Charley was appointed Lecturer in Dramatic Arts at the Milton Margai Teacher Training College earlier this month, in preparation for the first intake of students to this department in the 1993-94 academic year. The appointment was all the more poignant as it was as students at Milton Margai some 20 years ago that Dele and his wife Nannette had met.
Charley's death, during a football match, has shocked many in its untimeliness. His dedication to the arts, theatre in particular, was matched only by his passion for sports. He spent most of his adult life as a teacher in secondary schools, often straddling both the English and Physical Education departments. Many of Sierra Leone's present crop of talented athletes and footballers were nurtured at some stage of their school career by Charley's encouragement and training. His tracksuited figure was a regular feature at sporting occasions.
Dele's contribution to sport alone is noteworthy enough, but is only a part of the story. It is what he meant to theatre in Sierra Leone and much further afield that will ensure his fond and revered memory. He was the author of over 30 plays, not to speak of playlets, one-acters, poetry and articles, and the term 'prolific writer' seems inadequate. He was at the forefront of the movement to recognise and develop indigenous theatre. The primary vehicle for this was the Tabule Theatre Company, which he founded in August 1968. Many of their productions are now etched in our collective memory. As Sierra Leone's representatives at Festac 77 (Festival of African Arts and Culture) in Lagos, Tabule performed Charley's The Blood of a Stranger, which won the award for Best Play. Another play, Letters, was aired on Radio 4 in 1990.
Friends in England will also miss Dele Charley. He made many friends at Leeds University, where in 1988-89 he obtained a masters degree in Theatre Arts. He is fondly remembered at Lift (London International Festival of Theatre) for directing Raymond de'Souza-George's play Bohboh Lef which featured in the festival in the early Eighties. The play is about an orphaned teenager who loses direction until he comes a cropper - the title literally translated means 'Stop what you are doing, boy' - and Dele's direction transformed this from a series of loose sketches into a powerful observation of a young person coming to terms with the rest of his life. In London, he also worked with Dagarti Arts and the Puppet Centre.
In the summer of last year Charley offered a production of his play Ashoebi for a charity event in London, to raise funds for the Connaught Hospital in Sierra Leone. The title means sameness, and the play looks at the uniformity of thought and action that leads to a people idly watching as their society disintegrates about them. It concentrates on the way Sierra Leonean (or most traditionalist) society casts out radical thinkers, categorising them as criminal or insane. As with a lot of Charley's work it deals with weighty issues in a palatable manner by using popular songs and dance movements. The play, written in 1977, was still socially relevant 15 years on and raised pounds 1,500 for the hospital. The more permanent legacy of that gesture, though, was the establishment of Poda Poda Arts Collective, an African Performance Group based in London. The manner in which this group evolved testifies to Charley's charity, co-operation, and vision. Where others see two people, Dele Charley would see a potential performance group.