Biyi Bandele-Thomas (generally known as Biyi Bandele) was an award-winning Nigerian novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker known for depicting African and African immigrant experiences.
Biyi Bandele was born in Kafanchan, Kaduna State, on October 13, 1967. His father, Solomon Bamidele Thomas, was a native of Abeokuta, Ogun State, and a veteran of the Burma Campaign during World War II (at which time Nigeria was still part of the British Empire). His mother was a keen storyteller, and Bandele became an enthusiastic reader from an early age and a regular user of the library in his hometown. His father, a significant influence on his literary life, introduced Bandele to the works of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, along with a range of international classics. While watching the television his father had bought, Bandele first encountered the world of theatre through John Osborne’s celebrated play Look Back in Anger. When he was fourteen, he left his parents’ house to earn a living doing odd jobs while still attending school. At this time, he began working on his first novel. He moved to Lagos in 1985 and two years later was admitted to the University of Ile-Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in Osun State) to study Drama. Shortly after graduating in 1990, he left for London after winning first prize – a one-year stay in London – in the International Student Playscript Competition with his theatre piece Rain. He has lived in London ever since.
Career as a Playwright
Bandele’s talent was recognised early when he won the International Student Playscript competition in 1989 with an unpublished play. He received the 1990 British Council Lagos Award for an unpublished collection of poems. As a playwright, he has worked with the Royal Court Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), as well as written radio drama and television screenplays. While working as the Arts Council Resident Dramatist with the Talawa Theatre Company at the Cochrane Theatre in London from 1993 to 1994, he launched his career in television by writing two screenplays: Not Even God is Wise Enough (directed by Danny Boyle and aired in 1993) and Bad Boy Blues, a BBC production starring Clive Owen and Burt Caesar in 1995. He became Writer-in-Residence at the Royal National Theatre Studio in 1995. His 1997 adaptation of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart for the British stage confirmed his place as an important voice of post-colonial theatre. His plays include Female God and Other Forbidden Fruit (1991); Marching for Fausa (1993); Resurrections in the Season of the Longest Drought (1994); Two Horsemen (1994), which was selected as Best New Play at the 1994 London New Plays Festival; and Thieves Like Us (1998). Oroonoko, an adaptation of Aphra Behn’s seventeenth-century novel of the same name, was performed by the RSC in 1999 and featured an all-black cast. The play was later awarded an EMMA (Ethnic and Multicultural Media Award) in 2000. In 2001, he premieredBrixton Stories, the stage adaptation of his novel The Street (1999), as one of a series of plays commissioned for the RSC’s Other Eden project. Happy Birthday, Mr. Deka, a play written by Bandele and specially commissioned by the Told by an Idiot theatre company, premiered in Liverpool in 1999. Between 2000 and 2001, he was the Judith E. Wilson Fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge. He was also the Royal Literary Fund Resident Playwright at the Bush Theatre from 2002 to 2003.
Career as a Novelist
Bandele’s first published novel, The Man Who Came in from the Back of Beyond, which he had begun writing as a schoolboy, was published in 1991. His second, The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams – a satirical narrative featuring a fictional character loosely based on the former Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida – was released the same year and was later reissued as part of Heinemann’s African Writers Series in 1993. Bandele’s third novel, The Street (1999), set in the South London neighbourhood of Brixton, depicts the history of African immigrant culture in the area and the colourful characters who live and work there. In 2007, Bandele published another novel titled Burma Boy – a tale about African soldiers in the Second World War. The novel, perhaps his most personal work so far, deals with the struggles of Africans like his father, who took part in the Burma conflict during World War II. "This novel really is the novel that I have always wanted to write from day one," Bandele said in an interview with Koye Oyedeji of BBC Africa. The Independent newspaper described the novel as "a fine achievement" and "fine achievement" and was praised for revealing a little-known aspect of African history. Burma Boy was published in the US in 2009 as The King’s Rifle.
Career as a Filmmaker
His first film as a director was Half of a Yellow Sun (2013), an adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s 2006 novel of the same name. The film was screened in the Special Presentation section at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was reported to have received “a rapturous reception.” His next film, ‘Fifty,’ played at the 2015 London Film Festival. His last film, ‘Elesin Oba, the King’s Horseman’, is an adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s 1975 play - ‘Death and the King’s horseman’. He directed three films for television - ‘FELA - Father of Afrobeat’ (2018) for the BBC, the third season of MTV’s drama series ‘Shuga’, and ‘Blood Sisters’, the first Nigerian Netflix original series.
Bandele’s awards include the London New Play Festival Award (1994); a University of Aberdeen Wingate Scholarship Award (1995); the Peggy Ramsay Award (1998); and the BT Ethnic and Multicultural Media Award for Best Play (2000). In 2006, he was named by the Independent one of Africa's fifty most important artists. He is a member of PEN, the Society of Authors, and the Writers Guild of Great Britain.
Bandele died in Lagos on the 7th of August 2022. The announcement of his death by his daughter Temi Bandele did not state the cause of death.