Memorialising Orlando Martins

Femi Akintunde-Johnson

In these cloudy and pregnant times, when the soul, spirit and sovereignty of Nigeria are prone to the extremities of human greed, desperation and destitution, we must find some sort of catharsis to vent our haplessness, and derive some emotional and psychological balance within the ugly vortex of repulsive and insensitive politicking swirling around us. For some of us, a trip down the illustrious pathways to historic and majestic ‘ancestry’ is a heartwarming distraction. Such is the life and story of Pa Orlando Martins, MON.

  Though he died on September 25, 1985 in Lagos, a few months before his 86th birthday, in the context of the burgeoning stagecraft and the evolution of motion-pictures in Nigeria, Lagos-born Orlando Martins is a reference and a rarity in the Nigerian and African artistic pantheon. He is the one that can be described as the “ancestry” of the Nigerian dramatic contingent, even on the continent. 

  While today’s finest actors bang their heads on the doors of Hollywood for a peep-hole, Martins was a big attraction at the Big Apple of the 40s and 50s! Hollywood star and later 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, shared credits with Orlando Martins in The Hasty Heart (1949) where he played Blossom, the African warrior. He also starred alongside Jomo Kenyatta (who later became a much revered President of Kenya) in an earlier film, Sanders of the River (1935). One other interesting thing about this black and white film directed by a Hungarian (Zoltán Korda) and which plot was about a Nigerian expedition of a British colonialist (Leslie Banks as Capt. Sanders), the two lead roles were played by African-Americans, the popular Paul Robeson and Nina Mae McKinney. 

But the beginning was not this auspicious for Orlando Martins, nowhere near the more glorious 50s.

  He was driven by a passion for revenge – against the background of atrocities suffered by his grandmother in the hands of German soldiers who seized the Cameroons during the First World War (1914 – 1918). A year after leaving Eko Boys High School, Lagos, Martins travelled abroad with the angry intention to join the British Navy, and deal with the Germans who held his Grandma as a prisoner of war. He left Lagos at 18 for England in 1917 on a Liverpool-bound ship as a deck boy.

Two years later, the war was over. He needed to survive, and skills were limited. In most part of the 1920s, degrading came the way of the man who would later become Africa’s pioneer Hollywood superstar: he performed in the circus as a snake-charmer, worked as a porter at a fish market, as a wrestler (the ‘Black Butcher Johnson’); he was a night guard, kitchen attendant, road sweeper, and an extra in silent films, beginning with ‘If Youth But Knew’ in 1926.

Many regrettable roles later, Orlando Martins plowed his way into the hearts and soul of the British film establishment  with stage plays alongside Paul Robeson in Stevedore (1935) and Toussaint L’Ouverture (1936). Then, the second World War (1939-1945) came, and off he went to add his kobo to the British war efforts.

 His glorious era came as soon as the war ended. His electric stage performances as Blossom, the Basuto warrior in The Hasty Heart; as Brigadier Jeremiah in The Man From Morocco (1945) and as Magole, the witch doctor in Men of Two Worlds (1946) stopped the media in their tracks. Whipped by his ardour and dexterity, the following quotes epitomize the thawing constrictive conscience of the British society to the emerging profundity of black thespians. Notable author, Peter Noble was quoted eulogizing the unique persona and position of 1948 Orlando Martins, in a book, Black in the British Frame, thus: “A tall, powerful figure of a man with a deep bass voice, friendly, hospitable and with a grand sense of humour… He is keenly interested in the foundation of a Negro Theatre in London… If this ever comes into being it will mean not only that Negro talent in every theatre can be shown to the world, but a continuity of employment for this talent which is now going sadly to waste.”

 Whether Noble was prophetic or hyperbolic, Orlando Martins, acclaimed and inspirational, went on to dazzle and marvel his audiences in several films and plays as a prominent and leading actor. In fact, a 1947 poll, of now unidentifiable source, named Martins as one of 15 top British exports to the fast-growing Hollywood world.

  Before he returned home to Lagos in 1959 (47 years after as a 60-year old) he had posted stout credits in: Heart of the Matter (1953), West of Zanzibar (1954), Simba (1955), Safari (1956), Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957), Sapphire (1959); and in such stage plays as Cry, the Beloved Country (1954), and The Member of the Wedding (1957 – with the Royal Court Theatre), etc.

 Even while in semi-retirement, reconnecting with his ancestral home, Orlando Martins still logged impressive credits in: Killers of Kilimanjaro (1960), Call Me Bwana (1963), Mister Moses (1965), and Kongi’s Harvest (1970 – Nigeria’s first home-grown film adaptation). It was screen-played and led by Wole Soyinka, adapted from his 1965 book of the same title. Martins played Segi’s father with hardly any make up. He was 70). Fittingly, Orlando Martins’ last work was starring as Obierika in the 1972 mesh of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease, entitled Bullfrog in the Sun. He retired from active filmmaking at 72.

  By the way, Martins was born Emmanuel Alhandu Martins at Okesuna Street, Lagos Island  (incidentally, the same street where yours truly was also born many decades later) to a father who was a PWD official, and a petty-trader mother from the Soares family. His famous first name was smuggled into his status as a result of constant usage of his nickname, ‘Orlando Frigado’ by classmates at Eko Boys High School, to the chagrin of his father, Akinola Martins.

Orlando Martins, honoured at home and abroad, put an end to the journey which began on December 8, 1899 in Lagos, and ended as the legendary, and shining “western” star of the African continent, on September 25, 1985, also in Lagos. Unarguably, he is the chief unquenchable emblem of African acting excellence globally. 

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