Bayo Awala is one of Nigeria’s most accomplished thespians at home and abroad. In this interview with Solomon Elusoji, the 75-year-old, who worked alongside broadcast legend, Segun Olusola in the 70s, goes down memory lane
How was growing up like for you?
Well, I grew up in what I call a backwater, Ondo State. Ilaje precisely. My parents are from Delta, Itsekiri. My father migrated. His mother is from Ilaje, after his father died she came back to Ilaje and brought my father and then settled there and had all of us. I had my primary education there. In my village we have primary schools running up to Infant 1 and 2. For standards, we had to move into another location. My father was a preacher. I grew up as a boy of a preacher. They call me “Omo Alufa” (The son of a Priest)
Your father as priest, how many children did he have?
No, no…um (brief pause) I think I was the fifth. We are many. My father was a polygamist. He had 17 children.
Can you describe your training as a Thespian? Did you study theatre arts in school?
Very funny. No. After I went to secondary school in Delta, a famous economist, Professor Aluko, inspired me to want to become an economist. So, after secondary school, I was offered opportunity to go to the UK for further studies. I declined. I declined because by this time my father had died and my mother had eight of the 17 children. She was the only one catering for them. I decided that I wanted to be of help. I came to Lagos and immediately I started studying for GCE. I guess I wasn’t serious. I have never flunked any examination all my life, but I did this one. I was a very brilliant student. I was quite surprised and of course I made up my mind I was going to do well next time. I had two papers, so I bought all the books and enrolled in what was called Rapid Result College UK in the UK where they take people for A levels. I enrolled and started studying for the GCE A levels, confident that this time, no matter what happens I am going to make it. The exam used to be in January but by October I was struck down by a savage illness that left me almost paralysed. For six months, I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t study. I was totally useless. So, I gave up trying to take the exam in January. Then, something else happened. In March of 1966, a friend came to me. I was still sick and walking with crutches at the time. He said ‘Let’s go and see another friend of ours’, who lived in Surulere. I used to stay in Bamgbose, Central Lagos. It was behind the Christ Church Cathedral before inner Marina. I went with him. We got there just as when they were having their break. Apparently, he was in a drama school organised for secondary school teachers in Lagos State by the Federal Ministry of Education. As soon as I entered, the principal of the school, one Chief Olude saw me and said, ‘you ought to be a dramatist’. ‘Come and join this class’. I thought he was joking. ‘Give him papers let him sign!’ I said to myself, just like that?
Believe me, that was how I became a student of the Drama Class. It was organised by the Federal Ministry of Education for teachers to enable them teach drama in schools. I enrolled and it turned out that it was supposed to be a two year stint and while we were there, Chief Olude started making connections with the University of Ibadan. They too had a two year drama course and wanted to get us to take the drama exams with their students. I don’t know whether it was to keep our interest alive. What the teachers needed was certification to have the knowledge imparted.
There were many of us who were not teachers just like me. There was one Thomas and Bidemi who were not teachers but just had interest in drama. After two years in the school, we were told that the University of Ibadan rejected the idea. All of us just left. We left the school, all of us. Those of us who weren’t teachers. Then four of us formed a theatre group “Neighbourhood Players”. This was in 1968. That was how I started my trip into drama.
That is very interesting. Neighbourhood Players, did you have stage plays?
Oh yes we did! We did it from 1968 until 1974. Particularly during the war years. There were two groups involved. Neighbourhood Players and Festival Players. Festival Players was the drama group of white men in Lagos. I remembered that their director used to work with Frank Knight. People like Segun Olushola, Christopher Korede belonged to that group. In my group we were just young men who just left a training school and we did have a very swell time producing drama. Basically we were on for about six years.
What do you consider a successful career as a thespian?
Well, it is unfortunate that Nigeria has no place for thespians. That is the truth. The same situation persists today. In our days, the gain takings were very meagre. We were sustaining productions with our own funds. We would fund it, produce it. I did not consider that I really was very successful. I had to abandon it to go into television. Actually when Village Headmaster started in 1968, I was one of those contacted to come take part in the production. I refused because one, I had just started my theatre business and I didn’t see myself going into television. As a matter of fact, I had a disdain for the box. The television box compared to the large cinema. I turned it down. But in 1970, the then Controller of Programmes, Segun Olushola sent for me. He asked me to come see him. He sent a friend Olu Obaseki. I went to his office and he asked me point blank “Would you be interested working in television”. I was confused because to begin with, I had no idea what television is. I guess he called me because he knew my antecedents in the theatre. I guess he thought it wouldn’t matter much. I said to him, I had no idea what television is all about. He said to me ‘Would you be interested?’. I answered “Yes, why not?”. He said Ok. Then I was working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) of which the then television was a part. It set the machinery in motion to have me transferred. They had me transferred to NBC TV, it was so called then in 1970. The people at NBC didn’t want to release me. As a matter of fact, in the process they got me transferred to Benin. I went to Chief Olushola and complained that this people have transferred me to Benin. He said I should go and not worry. I went to Benin on transfer with just one small box. I got there and everyone was speaking Edo to me. Coming from Lagos, it sounded strange. The following week I picked my bag and came to Lagos. On getting to Lagos, the people in Lagos were furious. I told them I cannot exist in Benin. I don’t understand Edo now. Isn’t English the communication language in Nigeria? Chief Olushola came and said to them ‘We are organising a training for new entrants into television. Please let him stay for the training.’ They were pacified. They allowed me to stay and we had a three months training in television broadcast. When I finished, the GM came to me and said “Please, don’t go back to NBC in Ikoyi, come straight to television”. I went straight to television. That is where I started from.
In comparing theatre with television and film, how do you rate their developmental status in Nigeria?
All three are in a sorry state, seriously. I don’t even know how to attack it. I think the fundamental issue is that we didn’t allow stage performances to permeate our lives. Film and television need “Fit Stock” and stage should be the fit stock. The people who started Hollywood were stage people. They came from the stage. Ditto in Britain. Film came before television. It was a combination of stage and film that flourished into television. There is really not much difference except for the mode of transmitting. In stage, you are physically there with live audiences. They are really almost the same. Television is just that small box. Very little is expected. Film is as expensive as the word. The three have a lot in common but it is just their mode of transmission that is different. In Nigeria, those who lead us, our leaders are bohemians. They just don’t have interest in anything where they cannot take bribe, where they cannot see the future if they could support or not. They are not interested. I tell you the truth. I was talking to someone a few days ago. I said, Film business is the fastest growing business in the world today and every country is embracing it. Look at Nigeria, we don’t have more than 40 theatres or cinema halls in Nigeria. We have only National Theatre in Lagos. Show me where we have another theatre. I just pity those of us who could have been accountants, doctors or anything they wanted to be drifting into this apparent cul del sac. Thank God many of us still show some interest in it. Fortunately, there are starry eyed young men and women who think all the world about the theatre, film and television. Unless the game changes, there is no hope.
Do you think that in the coming years that the film industry would surpass the present state of the theatre in areas such as production quality, profit and talent produced?
Talent is not an issue. After successful movies, actors go back to the theatre to renew their theatrical skills. They do. There is a cross movement amongst the artistes. We don’t have stage performances. I am serious about this. We don’t. What we have are occasional films by interested parties. We do not have any standing group in Nigeria as we speak. It is usually an Ad hoc. I have an idea, I have a story, gather people and we perform. We have the Shakespeare in the UK and it has been there for ages. Look at our National Theatre? When was the last time you saw a performance by the National theatre? When was the last time? To answer your question, I don’t think these three arms are in competition. They are not. In fact, there should be cross movement within them. Look at some successful Nollywood actors. Many of them are back to television. That is the way it should be. Even whilst you are there, you are thinking about where you started from. There should be enough competition. I know some of them don’t have any idea on theatre, they just got there by accident. We all got there somehow, who the hell cares how. We don’t have enough competition to sharpen ourselves. The Bible says iron sharpeneth iron. I am deeply interested in us having infrastructure for cinema, for stage. Television is not an issue because we just have too many of them doing nothing or rather doing very little.
Have you always had a passion for arts and do you have any regrets delving into the theatre?
I call myself a thespian by accident and I just told you the background. Beyond the drama society in school, I had no idea of going into theatre. But I actually have no regrets. Apparently, my idea of wanting to become an economist was because I knew someone who was an economist and very good, so I got hooked on that. I think in my next world, if there is such, I would want to be a theatre practitioner because I so love it. There is a lot you can accomplish. There was a French writer, Molia. Molia was a comic writer but all his works were embedded with messages. As at the time we watched his plays the people would be roaring with laughter. After they got home, the message would dawn on them. The message was very informative. But these are things that we missed on. We have writers. Serious writers. Nigeria is crawling with writers. They don’t have outlet for their output. In the U.S., before a book is written, there is either a film producer or directors ready to take it up. That encourages people to do more. When you are patronised, you are encouraged to do more.
Do you have any upcoming projects or plays that have been written by you?
I have just shot a movie titled ‘E si jo wunmi’. It is an adaptation of a play Behold My Redeemer written by Rasheed Gbadamosi. Right now it is in editing. It was shot this year (2017). We just finished two weeks ago. We just came out of location two weeks ago.
You are called Reverend, Are you ordained?
Yes, almost all my brothers are ministers of the gospel. It runs in the family.
Would you want to produce a movie that ministers the gospel since you are concerned about messages that the film industry portrays?
Maybe I shouldn’t be complaining about this but there is a serious issue about funding projects in Nigeria. I have three stories that should minister to people and used for evangelism but where is the money? This project I just finished started in 2015. Truly, I commend Nigerian filmmakers and those working on stage. Unless you have a lion heart, the issues are daunting. In our days, we get on the stage with little or nothing our salaries and produce a stage play. Nowadays, it is practically impossible because of the economic situation of the country now. You need hundreds of thousands even millions of naira. You are not even sure of adequate return on investment. I think that the Nigerian entertainer should be highly commended.