“An Interview conducted in the year 2008, while I was still publishing a magazine”…It is a long one oh…so abeg, Enjoy this one…I promise more articles would be dished out next week, Insha Allah!
Preparing to meet Chief came with it, a feeling of déjà vu (like I’ve been to his place before). I guess the reason is not far fetched because every time I think of the kings of standup comedy, he makes the top list. But my mind didn’t prepare me for what lay ahead: a first-hand encounter with the king of entertainment (or rather, ‘old school’ entertainment) and a strong proponent of slapstick style of humor.
The last time I saw the Nnobi, Anambra State born comedian was on the ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Show’, where he didn’t miss the slightest opportunity to entertain the audience and viewers with his comical style of using English words and sentences incorrectly, while making hilarious comments and statements. Of course, I occasionally see him in my mind’s eye every time my ephemeral thoughts drift away to the days gone by, when coming home late in the evening would be a great delight because we were sure to be entertained before going to bed. And once the traditional gong starts playing after supper and our respective pinnae give way to the tuneful sounds of the unique theme song of ‘The Masquerade’, we were sure to have a blissful night rest.
As I entered the compound, I discovered that the flowers were well trimmed and the branches of the ornamental shrubs well clipped. I ask whether he does the trimming. “No, I have a nurseryman who tends to the flowers. One doesn’t know when reporters like you would be coming and they would seize the opportunity to write about how untidy my compound looks,” he said while smiling and I burst out laughing.
I also discover that he has an office in the compound, where we promptly headed to. The office had relics that pointed to his inspiring chronicle in life: first, as a very young boy in the pre-civilwar era to an accomplished father (with his own production company). I pointed to a picture of him in a NASA outfit. “That was two years ago when I went to emcee an event in the United States. Afterwards, I went to the NASA with a friend and I had to take this picture as a souvenir,” he said while taking a glance at the framed picture.
As a young boy a few years before the Nigerian civil war, he had been attracted to the army because of their gracefulness while marching and wanted to enlist in the Biafran army. “I tried several times to enlist but was met with the whips with which they flogged me and sent me off the camp. I later got a job with the Red Cross Society, where I tended to wounded and homeless people and in return, they gave us bags of foodstuffs as our wage. At the same time, a friend of mine approached me and asked me to join them in a show they were putting up. I accepted and we rehearsed several times before performing. We received a lot of acclamation and éclat after the performance and we continued performing during the war. We named the group the Two City Playhouse and our first performance was for University Lecturers. It was this first show that shaped me to employ my style of acting as an elderly man. So, I had two jobs: working as a performer in a show and as an attendant in the Red Cross Society,” he finished off while laughing heartily.
With the post-war era came a period of economic crisis especially in the eastern region. His polygamous family suddenly turned to a monogamous one. “My stepmother and only stepbrother died after the war. I even took a job at the Rehabilitation center, where I was serving food to the refugees. The Two City Playhouse was again revived and we continued performing. I was also made the president of the Entertainment Club at the Rehabilitation Center. I later left the theatre because of inconsistency on the part of the directors and joined another one. There, the first stage performance we put up was Sons and Daughters, produced by a Ghanaian named J.C. Degraphat. In addition, this new theatre was supported by the government of the late Ukpabi Asika.”
Because of his persevering attitude, he also got a job (together with other young men) at the University of Nigeria to clean up the university. “On entering the University Library, one would wonder whether the soldiers were fighting books and literary works during the war instead of their enemies. Everywhere was untidy and books were scattered in all directions. Our job was to put them back in the shelves and clean up the university entirely. We were also paid in kind (with bags of foodstuffs). We took the bags home to our family members and also sold some to make extra cash.”
Chika Okpala was really different from the other young men because instead of being affected by the economic crisis, he found himself experiencing a dramatic stage in life filled with journeys to places he hadn’t been to and of course, this fetched him more cash. “We were very serious with our theatre and I kept honing my acting skills. We were eventually invited by the army to Kaduna to perform. For the first time in my life, I found myself traveling in a train in the company of the Eastern Premier himself and lodging in a classic hotel.We performed for the army and they were highly elated,” he said.
However, this period wasn’t all rosy because oncoming back from the trip, his father couldn’t support him financially as a student. He had to register for extramural lessons to prepare for his GCE examinations. Once again, he took up a menial job and another as a typist. With these jobs, he could pay his rent and also support some of his siblings financially.
A couple of months later, luck smiled on him as the then Head of State (General Gowon) requested the presence of the group at the Dodan Barracks. “This time, we had to travel in a plane and lodged at the Federal Palace Hotel. There, we were checked into suites separately. Imagine the exhilaration that swept me off my feet. At that moment, I started to contemplate what I really wanted to do in life. There was fame and fortune in this theatrical business, I thought to myself. And in addition, I got a thousand and five hundred pounds after the show. There, I decided I wanted to be an actor.”
His journey to becoming a (major) cast of The Masquerade started when he was invited by James Iroha to feature in the programme – In A Lighter Mood, which was a fifteen minute radio programme produced by James at the then Eastern Broadcasting Station. “I played the role of the character called Natty. Along the line, a problem ensued between the person playing the role of Chief Okoroigwe and the producer. Actually, that was the fourth person playing that role. So I was asked to play the role on a certain day and I performed greatly. This programme was later adapted to the screen and became known as The Masquerade,” he said.
This sudden rise to popularity came with a lot of backbiting, bitching and hating from the dramatis personae. “Most people thought I was having too much luck and that I was taking the whole glory alone.But glory was not the crucial issue; I was after making a great career and putting smiles on people’s faces. Additionally, there was another play which took us around the country – Wind Versus Polygamy . I played the part of the hunter and yet again, I stole the whole show. So the bad-mouthing continued at an alarming rate,” he laughed off.
Later, the chairman of the Writer’s Association, also serving as the director of the programme decided specialization would be the key to bringing out the best in all the actors and also curb the hating among the cast of characters. “Most people took to Wind Versus Polygamy, probably because it was taking them all over the country. I decided to stick with The Masquerade. Ironically, Wind Versus Polygamy was a book so it eventually came to an end. On the other hand, The Masquerade was no book so we continued coming up with great and contemporary ideas that would lead to a superb performance in every episode. Even when James Iroha was diagnosed with brain tumor and sent abroad for treatment, we found ourselves between the devil and the deep blue sea. It was a case of surviving or getting annihilated. We chose the former and started writing scripts (the first time I ever wrote a script). We continued putting up terrific performances and when he eventually came back a year later, he was quite impressed and happy that we kept the programme running,” he says.
Surviving in such a hostile milieu could have been achieved by inspiration from a lot of people and a strong belief in what one is doing. “I wouldn’t rule out the fact that I was not concerned about the hating coming from my colleagues. But there was something more important and that was building a great career. Whenever I remember the people I looked up to (such as Baba Sala, whose humility and zeal in putting up great shows made him stand apart from others, Bill Cosby, who was always donating greatly to schools and charitable foundations and also late Ogungbe), I would focus on doing what I knew how to do best and that was putting up a wonderful show. And whenever I remember the success that this career brought me, I would wave off the whole infighting as a usual occurrence that happens when one is doing well in his or her chosen career.”
Consistency in what one is doing (or rather, staying at the zenith) is no mean feat as one needs constant improvement and polishing of character to do so. This, he did by employing a particular style or brand that people associated him with – the use of English words and phrases incorrectly. But he quickly points out, “It wasn’t my concept. It was already employed by the people that played that part before me. But I became consistent with it and also added my own flavor to the whole concept. I guess that gave a stamp of distinction on my performance as opposed to the others. My comportment and the way I handled my relationship with others also helped me greatly in succeeding.”
He is still in good terms with his colleagues at The Masquerade as he indicated that he would love to have them as perfect dinner guests, if possible. But a bitter incident that developed between him and the person playing the role of Jegede led to the sponsors of show backing out and eventual grounding of the show. “But that wasn’t the only problem that led to withdrawal of sponsorship. During that period, the country was going through serious economic upheaval. But sometime in the future, a repackaged show would resurface and be aired,” he says hopefully.
Happiness and fulfillment are what marks Chika’s everyday life because he has succeeded in accomplishing his life ambitions. “When I started out as a young actor, it wasn’t commonplace to have thespians who acted for a living. Most people, especially in the eastern part of the country were traders and my parents were such. So when I told my father that I had gotten a job as an actor, he told me I couldn’t be serious because actors couldn’t make a living not to talk of getting married. But today, I have proved him wrong; I am married with two kids,” he said as a smile played around his lips.
After so much accomplishment, does he plan to back down? “I don’t intend to do so. I really want to give back to the society in an immeasurable way. There is a project that we are planning for the disabled and incapacitated in which they would showcase their talents in comic shows. I was inspired by a wedding I attended in which two blind people got married. There was so much love and emotion and one needed to be there to see that such people are just like us. It would be wonderful for them to wake up in the morning, pick the necessary things they need and go to work instead of standing by the road side, in markets and at parks begging for money. We are also planning a special show (in conjunction with the organizers of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire show) for the disabled.”
Even with these projects in hand, he still finds time to relax. “I love to spend quality time with my family. And whenever we are together, my siblings and I spend time savoring the taste of fresh palm wine over a dish of bush meat and some local delicacies,” he added.
The time was ticking fast as I looked at my wrist watch. So fast forward to the concluding question: What is your greatest regret? “Well, I wouldn’t say it is a regret but I wished I had more money to upgrade my production studio. Also, the banks didn’t help in facilitating a lot of projects we wanted to embark on.” With that reply, I decide to make another conclusion; this time, a request: An advice for everyone that look up to you. “To upcoming comedians, stay focused and consistent and always strive to develop your skills. And to every other person (whether in entertainment or not), teach the right thing in everything you do.”
As I left, I bid my farewell and reflected on the last sentence he made. For real, I had to head for the church as I had a lot of confessions to make.