Elvina ‘Baby’ Ibru: that’s another word for beauty and brain. Gregarious, gorgeous and gifted, Elvina is a character with eclectic shades. She exudes delight and depth. With an expansive smile playing on her lips, forming a ripple on her visage, she represents a coalition of emotions -all positive and infectious. The 11th child of the late businessman, Michael Ibru, shares with Vanessa Obioha what makes her tick
The ‘Baby’ Championing The Cause of Nigerian Women
Elvina Ibru slowly paced up and down the tiled floor of the spacious balcony, deep lines of concentration spread on her face. She glanced at the folded white piece of paper in her hand, heaved a sigh, mouthed the words but wasn’t too convinced that she got the right dramatic flair.
In a few minutes, she will be rehearsing those lines in front of Ifeoma Fafunwa, the art director of the critically acclaimed play, ‘Hear Word’. At the moment, veteran actress Joke Silva was having her own rehearsal with the director.
“Madam will not kill me,” she humorously said, grabbing a seat.
“Madam keeps changing my role.”
Elvina, one of the daughters of the late businessman, Michael Ibru, has been a constant feature in the play since its debut in 2015. Before then, the play was widely known as ‘Vagina Monologues’ in 2006, in which Elvina also played a part.
“’Hear Word’ has evolved over the years from Vagina Monologues which was then produced by Joke Silva. Hear Word is also a series of monologues, only that it is directed to Nigerian women and issues we grapple within the society; such as child molestation, domestic violence. Some of the topics are universal but there are those that are peculiar to us; such as a woman being asked to drink the water used to wash her husband’s corpse.”
Throughout the years, she has played different characters including the wife of a man who offers his wife and daughter to visitors for sex. For the 2019 ‘Edinburgh Festival Fringe’, where the play will be presented, the director cast Elvina as a young woman who has been brainwashed by a pastor into sleeping with him for the fruit of the womb.
This character requires Elvina to express naivety while exhibiting an unwavering faith in the words of the Man of God. The character is one that Elvina is familiar with, having had friends with similar encounter.
This change in character has, in a way, helped Elvina to improve her acting skills. If anything, it delights her that Fafunwa finds her capable of taking on any challenge.
Though sometimes impromptu, Elvina has devised a way to deliver her lines well.
“What I do most times is to learn the basic gist about what the character is all about because, at times, the lines may change. This way, I don’t have to worry about skipping my lines. I do a lot of research on any character I play both on stage and on screen,” she said, a trait which Fafunwa commended when Elvina finally had her rehearsal. Notes were taken as Elvina, standing in the middle of the almost empty hall ran through her lines.
“Your body and your voice are entwined,” Fafunwa noted after her first act. “Now I want you to separate them. Stand still and project with your voice, let’s aim for body neutral.”
The rehearsal carried on for a while with Fafunwa pointing out cadence, stage movement, and dramatic flair. Once, Elvina missed a line but quickly recovered with a flinty determination. When Fafunwa suggested that a worship song accompany her performance, Elvina sang the famous song about the biblical disciples of Jesus Christ, Paul and Silas whose songs of praise to the Most High set them free from jail.
“Paul and Silas, they prayed, they sang, the Holy Ghost came down,” she crooned. The melody almost moved everyone around to join with a refrain.
She joked about how different gospel choirs have a peculiar tenor and almost gave a lecture on the relationship between voodoo and Catholics.
Lately, Elvina has been in the news, not necessarily because of her family’s prominence or her past days as an on-air personality at Classic FM, where she serenaded listeners with her voice, her eclectic collection of music and often times, her blunt opinions on topical issues. One of such incidents was when she advised spinsters to have a child via whatsoever means since the ovaries wait for no woman.
A particular listener, Abdul, lashed out at her on social media, accusing her of promoting promiscuity. But being an open-minded person and a jovial host, she turned the whole saga to a joke. A single mother herself, Elvina has always been vocal about her stance on marriage.
“I have always said I don’t want to get married. Part of it stems from the fact that I’m from a polygamous family and often surrounded by unhappy couples. Again, the marriage institution in Nigeria is unfair to women. Men can get away with infidelity and other issues. Not women, which is why I’m an equalist, not a feminist. I know it seems funny but I believe too much in marriage. Now that I am getting older, maybe my stance may alter but I am not going to marry just for marrying sake.”
Her fame this time around stemmed from her lauded role in the Bolanle Austen-Peters film, ‘Bling Lagosians’. She played the haughty role of Mopelola Holloway, the matriarch of the famous Holloway family in Lagos.
Her ability to interpret the role with a clinical precision fetched her accolades from fans and even colleagues. It is the first time the actress is cast in a lead role in a feature film.
The newfound fame requires a certain lifestyle from her which she is yet to adapt to. As a trained theatre actor, Elvina isn’t used to the fame that comes with being a movie star. Usually, after a stage performance, she disappears from the backstage, drawing little to no attention. A self-proclaimed tomboy who usually opts for casual, comfortable clothes, on this particular day, she was clad in a ‘dashiki’ top over a pair of black leggings.
On her feet was a pair of slip-on, a gift from her son, Elisha. Her face was bare of any makeup, only the golden stud on her chin, while her hair was concealed in a scarf. A lover of flowers, she tattooed a rose on her wrist and another flower at the back of her neck.
“I love flowers. I love being surrounded and given flowers. I think I got it from my mum. She loved flowers and knew all the botanical names.”
With her laudable character in the movie, she is forced to wear the look of a glam girl on the red carpet for each event. She confided in Fafunwa that the pressure to dress for every event is not a favourite hobby. It is a tedious task.
Unfortunately, she cannot shy away from that part of her profession. Luckily for her, Tania Omotayo, the owner of the fashion brand Ziva Lagos is a good friend of one of her nephews. Elvina loved her pieces on Instagram and suggested the brand to Fafunwa.
“I’m heading to her place to pick a dress for tomorrow’s event,” she told the director.
As we made our way to the parking lot, she commended her director.
“I wonder why she will not act. She is very good at her work and what is most interesting to me is that she comes from an entirely different background. She studied architecture.”
On getting to the parking lot, she realized her driver was not back from an errand.
She called his mobile line. No answer. A bit worried, she tried her nephew’s line who informed her that the driver left one hour ago. She suspected that it was deliberate, but she didn’t voice her suspicion in a rant. Rather, she carried on the conversation as if nothing happened.
Elvina is the last of her mother’s children and the 11th in the Ibru clan. Her siblings call her ‘Baby’. The name still stuck to her till date.
“If anyone calls me ‘Baby’, I know that the person really knows my roots.”
From a young age, Elvina evinced a predilection for the theatre, a trait she inherited from her late mother. But her father, who made a name for himself in the fish business will not have it being that Elvina had earlier wanted to study law. Before then, she wanted to be a reverend, an odd profession for women. That dream, she said was spurred by the biblical Old Testament stories.
“I used to love those Old Testament stories. You know those stories are very captivating, even till now. There is the story of David and Goliath; my favourite Joseph with all the twists and turns. I started studying Christianity and found out that each time I talked to people about God, they were enthralled. Also, the headmaster of my school was a reverend and a fantastic teacher. I often saw him as an image of God because he was tall, and had a full beard.”
She would have also wanted to be a forensic detective if she were good at sciences or an archaeologist because of her obsession with history. She is considering taking a course in African Magical Rites.
However, her father’s efforts to dissuade her from following her true passion yielded no result. By the time she finished from London Academy of Performing Arts in England and started performing on the big stage in the West, including working for the British Broadcasting Commission (BBC), her father knew it was a lost battle. Yet, he insisted that she got another degree which she dismissed.
But as her father’s life approached the nadir of that dark moment of sickness, Elvina feared she might rue her decision, so she went back to school and studied International Relations. As soon as she was done with her studies, Elvina dumped her certificate and took the next flight home. “I decided to come home to make an impact. That was in 1998. I went mainly into singing because I had a voice. I was doing very well with my music, even recorded an album until unfortunately, I lost my voice. I went for a jingle and my voice went. They told me I had torn my vocal chords, so I needed to heal for a long time. The voice used to be a Jennifer Hudson’s voice,” she joked. The vocal impairment also affected her acting but on hindsight, Elvina sees it as a blessing in disguise as the temporary limitation inspired her to set up a production outfit called ‘Twice As Nice’. Some of her productions include ‘Diana’s Verdict’ and ‘Cajole’ which is aired on Iroko TV. Her next plan is to produce for the cinema.
Being an Ibru apparently came with some disadvantages. Having recovered her voice, the fair-skinned lady expected jobs to start trickling in. Things didn’t happen that way.
“At first, I thought it was because of my weight but nothing happened after I lost it. It began to dawn on me that one of the reasons people didn’t take me seriously was because of my name. It is difficult being an Ibru. Everybody thinks that the name opens doors magically. That the money is there for me to pursue any passion. In fact, they think my passion for acting is a hobby. Even when they take the bold step to offer a job to me, they are scared of the amount to pay me because they think I’m an Ibru and will be expensive, which is not the case. I love my art and of course, I have to make some money. I don’t demand ludicrous amount and then I have sympathy for filmmakers who struggle to recover their money. So please oh, they should not be afraid. I am available for work,” she said.
Nevertheless, Elvina is very particular about the quality of the script. She only accepts well-scripted production irrespective of the part.
“In theatre school, they always say that there is no such thing as a small part, only a small actor. It is very deep. A small actor is typically an actor who turns down a script because he or she is not given a major role, unknown to him that the small part may catapult him to stardom. I had a similar experience. I once delivered a line in a play that got a director so restless that he sought me out and offered to give me more lines. If you see as I handle that line,” she said comically. Playing Mopelola, she claimed, was a walk in the park. It reminded her of family friends back in the day. Describing her parents as humble, she said she often laughed at the pretenses of some of their friends.
Apparently, art is ingrained in the Ibrus genes. Elvina recalled that her father sponsored the South African musical group Ipi Tombi’s visit to Nigeria for the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977.
“It was the first show I ever watched. My mum took me to watch it at the National Theatre and I was mesmerized. I didn’t know I was going to end up being a professional performer but I knew I wanted to somehow do what they were doing. To make matters worse, there was a piece the group performed which had my name, baby,” she sang the lines, her face animated with nostalgia. “That made me fall in love more with the arts. I was convinced that Providence was showing me a sign.”
The Ibrus’ home was also enlivened by musicals and movies. They were her late mother’s favourite so she grew up listening to Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, watching Marilyn Monroe and dancing to the evergreen song of Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews, ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’.
Her older brother, Oskar — who escaped from school to visit her in the hospital when she was born — revealed during a private screening of ‘Bling Lagosians’, that each of them has an artistic trait. “My brother, Peter, for example, plays seven instruments. I drum and sing. Gloria sings too. Obukeme sings but she is not a showgirl.”
Another trait Elvina inherited from her parents was the act of giving. And like her parents, she is not loud about it. She is keen on helping children and young girls. But unlike her parents, Elvina is not fluent in her native language. She doesn’t even speak it. She blames her parents for that because according to her, they could speak six different languages.
“My father was so fluent in Yoruba that he could write it.”
However, she is very fluent in Pidgin English. For the most part of the conversation, she spoke in pidgin. How she became so fluent in the language, she had no idea. “My English was the worst among my siblings. We all speak pidgin but mine was exceptional. My dad looked at me one day and said, ‘One begins to wonder if all these monies one is spending is going anywhere,” she explained.
“My mother didn’t know I could speak English until the first time we travelled together. She was baffled because I usually come home with good grades in English but I never spoke it at home. So when I asked the air hostess if I could have more groundnut in English, she was shocked that those words flew out of my mouth. I immediately switched back to pidgin.”
Locating Ziva Lagos was not easy. After a few turns, we finally found the boutique which interestingly was opposite a nightclub she frequents. “My sisters and I come here every Tuesday for reggae music. I have lots of sisters but Gloria and Obukeme are the closest. We are like the three musketeers.” After trying on a few dresses, she settled for a long silk gown with a front slit. “I love dresses that fit my top and then spread from the waist downwards.”
As we drove through the Lekki traffic, I inquired from her if she had considered living in other parts of Lagos. “Never! Born in Apapa, live in Apapa and probably die in Apapa,” she said.
“Maybe I’m sentimental about the place. Apapa was such a beautiful place when we were growing up and it was full of aristocrats and generals. It was its own little world and very safe. Apapa was really funky. We had the Amusement Park, clubs, cinemas, and joints. All the funky kids were in Apapa. It is the only place I know. I will never live on the Island or Lekki. There are other areas of Lagos I love like Ilupeju and Yaba. I also love the old GRA in Ikeja.”
At the end of the day, Elvina, with all the prominence, is a funky Apapa lady, whose love for the arts and good music is the same as her love for home in Apapa. A place she doesn’t plan to leave soon.