Conversation with Chuck Mike

An encounter with the embodiment of Black theater with more authenticity and social consciousness
BY Jamin Ohwovoriole
During rehearsals of Wole Soyinka’s Lion and the Jewel , London, 2005 –Photographed by Robert Day

Lagos, in the 90s, was boisterous city with a vivacious night life and in the heart of this was an effusive theater made resplendent by the many theater seasons orchestrated by Chuck Mike with both corporate and institutional support.

 

Toyin Akinosho, a cultural activist, who has known Chuck Mike since the 70s, has this to say when asked, “What impact did Chuck Mike have on the development of theater in Nigeria through his many theater-related projects?”

 

“Chuck Mike certainly influenced the Nigerian theater scene to some extent at a point in time, but looking at the environment now, there is little of his directorial style (very realistic stage setting, experimental gender role play (Use a girl to play a boy); his choices of plays (largely African American plays), his kind of structure or funding arrangement (strong culture diplomacy targets) that shows up significantly in the way today’s Nigerian theater producers organize their businesses. The closest thing to a Chuck Mike tradition today is Patrick Jude Oteh’s Jos Repertory Theater, which is run as a loose combination of ideas from Chuck Mike and the J.P Clark’s PEC repertory Theater structures.  Mike didn’t affect Nigerian theater the way the French culture establishment has affected Nigerian dance culture, in my view. [However] it is safe to say, when he operated in Lagos from the late 80s to sometime in the 90s, he was a major participant.”

 

(AFT) workshop – Abuja Festival of the Theatre, Nigeria, 2019 conducting Master Workshops, Photographed by Chinyere Stella Uzoho

Akinosho adds: “He was passionate. He gave out a lot. I think that people like him are required to be in a space with strong established institutions to flourish. He happened on the scene at a time, unlike now, when the desire for theater was on the wane: it wasn’t strong. It was a period of hiatus, from when things hit a high in the mid to late 80s. His Lagos practice, don’t forget, happened at a time of great turmoil.”

 

This “time of great turmoil” is a reference to the heady days that bestraddled the military regimes of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. The pulsation of time required a theater practice designed as a catalyst for social change. Conscientious as Chuck Mike was as a thespian in the Nigerian space, it was no surprise that his selection of plays performed at the various festivals and community initiatives raised awareness about social issues through community engagement process.

 

Chuck Mike will be 70 years old on September 27, 2022. TNR salutes his industry and commitment!

 

Here is Chuck Mike, unabridged.

 

There was a time in Nigeria when one can say that the performing arts scene was synonymous with Chuck Mike. Then, all of a sudden, I believe, you left the country. When exactly did you leave Nigeria and why?

 

Ha ha! Thank you for the accolade, however I wouldn’t quite say that the performing arts scene was synonymous with me. I had several colleagues who were doing incredible theater work at the time. The Jacob’s Lofudu company and Ben Tomoloju’s  Kakaaki theater in  Lagos, Bode Sowande’s Odu Themes in Ibadan and The Nigerian Popular Alliance led by Steve Abah in Zaria are a few examples. That I was also allowed to serve the theater community was both an honor and a privilege for me. I merely continued the work that others before me had started, those whose shoulders I still stand and derive inspiration from. Ogunde, Soyinka, Rotimi, Clark, Osofisan, Adelugba, Oduneye and others paved the way for many of us and I was blessed to have worked with most of those whom I’ve just mentioned.

 

(with WS at AFT ) – Abuja Festival of Theatre, Nigeria, 2019, Photographed by Chinyere Stella Uzoho

Nor would I say I left “all of a sudden.” Rather it was an orchestrated withdrawal aligned with opportunities that furthered my career as an artiste and educator.  My primary reason for leaving Nigeria however, had to do with family. I wanted to spend time with my aging parents before they joined the ancestors. I’d lived away from them for the better part of 30 years. I also wanted to provide higher educational opportunities for my children. Having experienced university life in Nigeria as a student, in addition to teaching for several years in the university system at Ife, I witnessed, first-hand the decline of university facilities and educational standards. The Abacha era prompted what I call “the rising order of mediocrity”. There was an exodus of some of our best intellectuals and artistic minds at the time, some of whom included, Soyinka, Biodun Jeyifo, Kole Omotosho, Femi Euba, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Folabo Ajayi and many others. Consequently, individuals who would not ordinarily be in positions of power began to infiltrate pivotal positions in higher education. Values, ethics and merit-based systems took a sharp decline. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many brilliant academics with integrity in our universities, unfortunately they were not enough to turn the tide of corrupt practices which had become pervasive. It became intolerable, so I left to foster new methods of training and theater practice outside of the university. Once my children reached secondary school I knew I had to plan towards alternative avenues for their education at the tertiary level. As fate would have it, I received an offer from the university I now teach at which would allow me to continue my international work, be nearer to my parents and educate my children. Having said that, I am very much tied to Nigeria through family, friends, and associates. Before the pandemic I was in Nigeria at the very least, every two years for one reason or the other. The last of these was to provide master classes and to present a life-time achievement award to Wole Soyinka at the Abuja Festival of Theater led by Chidi Ukwu. Recently Patrick Jude Oteh visited me in Richmond, and we are discussing the possibility of doing a similar thing for Jos Repertory Theater.

 

With CAFTAN, the Collective Artistes and many other theater related activities, your projects became breeding ground for a generation of Nigerian actors. Some like Ayo Mogaji are still out there among others who grace the stage, TV, and the Nigerian cinema. When you reflect on your many projects and the accomplishments of those under your tutelage once upon a time, what would you say was the purpose of your various programs and would you say you accomplished your goals through the programs?

 

Collective Artistes (CA) came into being as a forum for graduates and others at large to practice professional theater. I had many university products who yearned for theater activity outside the walls of academia and theater companies were very few. The other mission of CA was to provide, through the provision of excellent, classic productions, some measure of cultural exchange particularly between the African world of the Americas and Nigeria. (This was a personal mission as well that I will speak to later.) The management and creative team started with me and 3 students from Ife: Ajua Dickson, Jolade Kilanko and Ronke Oteju. Later another graduate of OAU, Tokunbo George-Coker headed our general management.

 

Wine Tasting Event, Virginia, 2022, Photographed by Ayanna McMullen

For those who observed the trend of festivals in the Collective Artistes Festival of Theater (CAFTAN), it would become obvious that there was a Nigerian biased mission a foot. Our first season was the Festival of Black American Drama (FESBAD), the second was The American Theater Revue (ATR), the third was The Season of American and Nigeria Drama (SAND) and the fourth was the Nigerian International Theater Extravaganza (NITE). Apart from evolving a professional theater forum and providing entertainment for the Lagos community, these seasons were also meant to prompt mutual understanding between Nigerians and Americans. Though our start-up support came from the United States Information Services, shortly thereafter, corporations, foundations and local business began to chip in. As one can glean from the trend, my heart was entrenched in Nigerian theater and NITE, which was a complete Nigerian dramatic overture, was our most comprehensive season with 8 plays as opposed to the 4-6 plays in our previous seasons. It was upon the commencement of NITE that we relocated offices from USIS into what was formerly Pec Repertory Theater.  Amongst the hundreds of actors who graced our stage during these seasons were Richard Mofe Damijo, Joke Silva, Clarion Chukwura, Tosan Edremoda, Segun Aina, Ayo Lijadu, Keppy Ekpenyong, Bimbo Manuel, Bimbo Akintolo, Funsho Alabi, Yinka Davies, Biola Ogunduyele, Zara Udofia, Sola Benjamin and Toyin Oshinaike. Directors such as Niji Akanni, Segun Ojewuyi, Jide Ogunbade, Jude Oteh and choreographer Amatu Braide also participated.  Musical aficionado, Uncle Steve Rhodes, also performed in one of our productions. Some of the designers among us were Sunbo Marinho, John Owuh, Bola Kujore and Chuks Okoye. The very first Nigerian play we produced was “Rain” by Biyi Bandele just before he headed to the UK. Biyi was also an OAU graduate from our department in Ife and helped to ignite my international career when I directed, at his request, his adaptation of Things Fall Apart for the London International Festival of Theater.

 

( Lion and the Jewel at the Barbican, London) – Photographed by Robert Day

As you have mentioned many of these artistes, designers and technicians have gone on to become distinguished personalities on the Nigerian stage, TV and film industry. Others such as Ukwu, Oteh and Felix Okolo went on to foster theater companies of their own. For me, the continuity of theatrical activity through these individuals is a measurement of goal attainment.

 

The Performance Studio Workshop (PSW), though conflated with CA, had a different mission which was twofold. The first was to offer training for would be thespians and the second was to act as a catalyst for social change. Our training program involved acting, dance, music, speech, stage and business management and technical theater. There were formal classes taught by me and other noted figures in the industry. There were three tiers to participation, new intakes, interns and artistes in residence.  All three constituted the ensemble company that comprised PSW. We advertised in the dailies for new intake each year and made the process merit based.

To my knowledge we were (till date) the only private full-time ensemble theater company working in the English language with a monthly paid company of actors, technicians and administrators who also had health benefits. We grew to two dozen or so personnel and were also hosting other guest artistes from within Nigeria and abroad.

 

Though some PSW members participated in CA shows, the primary creative mission was to create original topical work that addressed social issues. Some performances were full length and on the formal stage, but many others were shorter pieces. Often using Applied Theater (Guerilla Theater or Theater for Development) techniques, these playlets took place in marketplaces, motor parks, on the streets and in villages. Through these activities we were able to make a difference in our community and society, sometimes on a national basis. The themes ranged from criticizing government corruption to reproductive health issues, road safety, democratic practices, illiteracy and community development. Ikpiko (aka Sense of Belonging) was the centerpiece of a project I designed called SISTERHELP (Synergizing Information Systems Towards the Enhancement of Reproductive Health and the Eradication of Ligate Practices). By organizing and working alongside women of various occupational backgrounds and classes one of the seminal gains from this project was the halting of female circumcision (FC) in various parts of the country. It was largely through our efforts that the city of Benin where the dominant prevalence of FC occurred, instilled a law against the practice. Similarly, we saw circumcisers drop their tools and we worked with them towards developing alternative income sources. (There is a video produced by Communication for Change which documents this activity).  In the village of Oluwole in Ibadan we witnessed a community forming a cooperative, repairing their roads and working alongside neighboring communities towards farming to alleviate hunger – all at the behest of our theater activity with them in their community. We also witnessed changes of behavior towards prenatal care practices, immunization, literacy and driving on our roads. There are copious reports (and a few articles) on several of these activities also.  If the empowerment of people to embark on real change for the betterment of themselves and their society is a mark of success then the activities of PSW clearly achieved its goals. Additionally, like CA, many of the PSW products have also gone on to greener pastures in theater and film. Like Rotimi’s Ori Olokun Theater and Soyinka’s Orisun Theater and 1960 Masks, CA and PSW were both theatrical movements meant to keep the flames of live theater alive in Nigeria.

 

(The Meeting by Jeff Stetson at Pleasance Theatre, London) Featuring Cornell John ( Malcolm X )and Ray Shell( Martin Luther King Jr., 2010 – Photographed by Robert Day

You have been described as a “practical disciple of Wole Soyinka.” In what ways did Soyinka influence your art and your scholarship as an apprentice? In addition, would you say that you are now a master of your own craft and your own attainments as a scholar?

 

My teething ground as a director was nurtured under Soyinka’s watchful eye. I assisted him on several of the Uni- Ife Guerilla Theater projects and on a couple of our major productions through the late seventies and 80’s up till his departure from Ife. My MPhil. thesis was on “Soyinka as a Director” and I am unaware, if to date, anyone has ever approached his theatrical work from that perspective. The most powerful lesson I learned as a director from him was that “anything can happen in the theatrical space”. A major part of directing is problem solving. If you believe that anything can happen, then there is no problem you can’t solve. While I picked up tips on textural analyses, staging, working with the actor and designers nothing was more empowering than to know that any illusion could be made to occur in the theatrical space, regardless of resources. It simply takes an active imagination, vision, a sense of managing animate and inanimate resources (where available) and relentless determination. As a theater practitioner I’ve also imbibed the notion that when we have the privilege of capturing the eyes and ears of others it is useful to place something before them that addresses the sordidness around us. Many of Soyinka’s plays and sketches hold true to this dictum. My career as a producer, director, playmaker and educator reflects this belief as well. Soyinka’s humanistic nature was also inspirational. It cultivates a sense of generosity, care and concern for one’s fellow man, and I will add, in many instances, stimulates the courage needed to stand up in the face of injustice. Beyond my theatrical activity I have incorporated these beliefs into my personal life, and I believe I have become a better human being as a result of it. My scholarly interests were more nurtured by Dapo Adelugba who along with Biodun Jeyifo supervised my post graduate work. Uncle D drilled in me the need for constant inquisitiveness, to read, document and continuously explore new territory and experiences as tools for scholarly and creative growth. It was he who aroused my early interest in directing before I joined Soyinka in Ife. I have benefitted from and worked with several titans of the Nigerian theater in addition to master crafts persons abroad including Peter Brook and Jude Kelly, but my work with Wole Soyinka was undoubtedly the lengthiest and most influential.

 

In terms of mastering, one’s craft, I think that is for others to judge. I love what I do and constantly strive to learn how to further my growth in the art of theater making and scholarship.

 

Usually, Nigerians come to America because of the proverbial greener pastures. You, on the other hand, left America for Nigeria in 1976. What was the motivation for that journey to Africa, especially Nigeria?

 

As a child of the Black nationalist movement in the US, I was conscious of the need for Black people to tell their own stories. I was unhappy with the stereotypical images of blacks in America and Africa being portrayed in theater and film as violent, sexually depraved, and idiotic. At Fordham University where I did my undergraduate work, as an acting specialization student, I was weaned on a diet of eminent white writers none of whom told any reasonable stories of my people. Black theater productions were sparce. I realized that I also needed to move beyond acting into other areas such as writing, directing and producing to bring about change. I believed that by going to the “source” of my cultural existence, I would find the tools to reimagine Black theater with more authenticity. Consequently, before graduating I applied for a Fulbright/ITT one year fellowship to study abroad. Though my professors were keenly advising me to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in the UK, I chose the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.  Little did I know I would be in Nigeria for the next three decades.

 

In what ways has Nigeria shaped you; that is, if any?

 

Hmm, that’s a hard one. It may have been easier to answer several years ago when I still had some objectivity about Nigeria. Nigeria gave me a family and lifelong friend. I was submerged in the society beginning with my school days in UI.  You can imagine how subjective one becomes under such circumstances. Though my early upbringing was in New York, my parents were from the south. My father was a funeral director and my mother, a registered nurse. They placed a high premium on education as a tool for self-advancement, but that was pretty much it. We were left to decide whatever we wanted to do with our lives as long as we were educated. I think Nigeria broadened my horizons. Like theater, I cultivated in my life the belief that anything can happen. The sky is the limit. Most Nigerians I know, regardless of class or cultural background, have this belief; that they can achieve anything. Though I’d fleetingly thought about starting a theater company, I never consciously sought it. I was content in academia at Ife. When the handshake in academia moved beyond the elbow and I realized that my students had little or no place to practice this craft that we taught them outside of academia, I was compelled to do something different. Little did I know I would establish two companies in Nigeria and another in London.  Nor had I anticipated the international career as a director and educator which followed. I was reared in Nigeria in the southwestern region. The Yoruba expression Ase (may it be so) may have permeated my sensibilities. I believe that whatever I wish to happen, will happen. And I trust that it will.

 

(AFT) workshop – Abuja Festival of Theatre, Nigeria, 2019 conducting Master Workshops, Photographed by Chinyere Stella Uzoho

My family also has very strong bonds and are caring people. I think my experiences in Nigeria accentuated those beliefs. Europe and America, in particular, are very individualistic societies. The notion that a marriage is between two families and not solely between two people is somewhat far-fetched to many. The idea that it takes a village to raise a child is often touted in America, especially in the Black community, but the hard-core acts of communal support for each other is a far cry from what I experienced in Nigeria. Family and friends are the Nigerian support system. Your problem invariably becomes my problem due to the kinship we share.  Despite whatever shortcomings we have in Nigeria, I believe there is generally a greater sense of the humane. I believe my sensibilities have been impacted in this way as well.

 

Self-assertion, diplomacy and levelheaded reasoning are perhaps other attributes I have grown to appreciate in Nigerian society. I teach at a predominantly white, very privileged institution which still has the embers of racism burning quite bright. Several highly paid African – American scholars who have come here leave surreptitiously. Given the history of racial injustice in this country the environment is intolerable for them. Understandably, their fuses are very short and very few remain beyond a semester.  African scholars on the other hand have been able to weather the storm for many years.  Part of the reason I believe is that they know who they are and why they are here and deftly manage white supremacy without allowing it to deter them from set goals. They entertain adversity skillfully and subtly provoke change. They pick and choose fights stealthily while at the same time tailoring strategies to suit the battle. When the moment comes for boldness, they do not hesitate to seize it either.  My Nigerian upbringing has helped me to grow more in these attributes.

 

Standing Together 6Ft Apart created by CM , Modlin Center for the Arts, Virginia, 2022 – Photographed by Penelope Carrington

 What do you miss or long for about Nigeria while you are here in America?

 

Pepper soup and Star beer!!!!! On a more serious note, I miss the comradery and esprit de corps which hovered my experiences with people there, especially those people whom I am close to. I long for the company of loved ones especially. I miss the fundamental art of “playing” in the theater without concern for anything else but playing, being in the moment. My work outside of Nigeria does not provide the joy or fulfillment of creating work as it did in Nigeria.  Much of western theater has been commodified. It often lacks soul and substance. I miss the heartbeat of creating work in Nigeria, with Nigerians on issues which affect our lives and community. And I do miss going to a beer parlor and yabbing government with others who would like change. But like many other Nigerians, when I am there, after a few weeks I’m dying to get out. The day-to-day wahala can be daunting!  When I’m out, I’m dying to get back. Nigeria is like a wife that you can’t live with and can’t live without!  I long for the day of change that will enable the country to reach its actual potential. I long for leadership (and followership) that will earnestly try to obliviate corruption, provide security, inculcate adequate infrastructures, and create an atmosphere where the common man can prosper.

 

What would you like those wondering “where is Chuck Mike?” to know? I know you are a professor here in the United States. What else?

 

I continue to do the same work that I did in Nigeria here in the US and in other spaces of the world. I designed and teach a number of performance courses which perk the social consciousness of my students at the University of Richmond.  Performing Cultural Diversity and Theater for Social Change are amongst my favorites.

 

I also do community activism in the Richmond community using theater. I still direct plays here in the US and abroad. In April I staged an original work which was two years in the making called Standing Together 6ft Apart. It drew upon stories given by people in the Richmond community about their experiences with COVID, the events which transpired after the death of George Floyd and the horrific Trump administration. Using stories, music, song and poetry the production, which was dubbed theater for the people, by the people and with the people, was meant to serve as a medium for reflection and to celebrate our resilience against great adversity over the past two years.

 

Currently I’m working on a play called Smart People which goes up late September 2022 in Richmond. In February 2023 I will be directing a new play by Femi Euba called Craters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

 

CA, which is located in London now, was heavily hit by the loss of Arts Council funding and the pandemic. So, I am currently trying to resurrect its activity there where I directed a play every 18 months for touring.

 

I continue my quest of bridging the gap of mutual understanding between peoples of African descent through the Cultural Diaspora project that I am co-curator for, along with noted playwright Carlyle Brown. Under the auspices of the Camargo Foundation, every two years we bring four African American playwrights together with four playwrights from Africa and the African diaspora for a five-week residency in Cassis France near the Mediterranean Sea. In our first outing (2018) we had three playwrights from Nigeria amongst which included Femi Osofisan. I just returned from our 2022 edition a few weeks ago.

 

Currently I’m also trying to find the time to continue writing about my journey to Nigeria and back to the US. It is not an assignment that I am particularly enamored by. Friends and colleagues have pestered me for years to do it and I think it may be that time.

 

Would there be a ‘second coming’ of Chuck Mike to Nigeria?

Ah ah!  A second coming implies that I completely left!  While I may have relocated from Nigeria physically, I am still in and out on occasion.  I am however, always there spiritually. Consider me a “born again” Nigerian. Interestingly, I did a DNA ancestry test last year, only to discover that my heritage is 56% Nigerian.

 

I wasn’t surprised.

 

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