Legends of July: Wole Soyinka, Olu Jacobs and Jimi Solanke

Triumvirate deserves celebration as icons born in July who lend to the theatre world consummate professionalism and accomplishment.
BY Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

July is the birth month of the troika of legends on the Nigerian stage. The black world’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature, Wole Soyinka, born on July 13, 1934, struck 88 in fine fettle. The influential icon of stage and film, Olu Jacobs (July 11, 1942) joined the esteemed octogenarian league, as did the lionized master actor, storyteller and musician, Jimi Solanke (July 4, 1942). Incidentally, Olu Jacobs and Jimi Solanke had at different times in their careers played leading roles in the production of Wole Soyinka’s plays.

 

It is remarkable, for starters, that Soyinka is still active and doing relevant work. A translation of Soyinka’s play, Death and the King’s Horseman, into Yoruba has been shot into film by the ace Director Biyi Bandele as Elesin Oba – The King’s Horseman, and it will earn the distinction of being the first African film premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2022. The film under the production ambit of Mo Abudu’s Ebony Films will come to @NaijaOnNetflix later in the year.

 

While a visual feast and an emotional rollercoaster await lovers of Soyinka’s drama, it is pertinent to remind all why Elesin Oba – The King’s Horseman is poised to take its rightful place on the global stage as an iconic cultural product that embodies the paradox of a people’s ways of life beyond the thematic manifestation of cultural conflicts. Biodun Jeyifo, the effervescent scholar of Africa Literature, sums the import of the play best. According to him, “What makes Death and the King’s Horseman so powerful as drama is the myriad of narratives, fables, songs, chants and dances that simultaneously celebrate and elegise the terror of death.”

 

 

Soyinka appears never undaunted to continue to shock the world. When at the end of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic I broke the world exclusive news that Soyinka was about to publish his third novel, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, not many people believed me – that is, until the book came out with an eruption that trumped the Richter scale!

 

Speaking to The New Yorker, Soyinka reveals, “There’s no question at all that a number of the characters were “inspired” or “triggered” into being by personal encounters. I took great pains to insure that some of the villains knew that they provided the base material.”

 

On the significance and aptness of the novel’s title, Soyinka has this to say: “Maybe [Nigeria] is Halloween nation, and [the people] are not going to understand it. But then, again, as I was saying, you do encounter those who extract, forcibly, a measure of contentment or fulfillment, even of the most meagre kind. They are buoyed either by religion or by an ingrained traditional philosophy that the worst is yet to come, and therefore you’d better enjoy the present. Because Nigerians do celebrate—I mean, that is not a lie. People all over the world where Nigerians are, they do salute Nigerians for their spirit of celebration, which is why I took pains to insure that at least one character represented what the pursuit of happiness might be—through creativity, through just love of others, through just making others happy, if only for a few moments. So it’s a mishmash of ironies, of acknowledgements, of concession, of even a measure of salute to the people. I hope that measure comes out, that element comes out.”

 

Fact is the living legend named Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka did not waste any time at all from the very beginning of life. As if ordained right from the womb of his beloved mother whom he fondly calls Wild Christian, Soyinka was determined to kick aside any obstacle standing in his way from setting forth at dawn. When he could barely stand, he of his own accord followed his elder sister, Tinu, to start attending St. Peter’s School, Ake, Abeokuta, under the headship of his father, Essay. He was a brilliant, if rascally, pupil who played a lot of practical jokes, and in Standard III performed the role of The Magician in the prize-giving day play that prophetically stresses:

 

For I’m a magician

You all must know

You’ll hear about me wherever you go

You can see my name in letters large…

 

At age 10 in 1944 he was admitted into Abeokuta Grammar School (AGS) where the maverick musician Fela’s father, Rev. A. O. Ransome-Kuti, was the principal. Fela was of course Soyinka’s cousin. Soyinka was the youngest student in the school as most of his classmates could even pass for his teachers in age! Soyinka’s early grooming by the principal Ransome-Kuti, whom Soyinka fondly addressed as Daodu, was matched by the mother-care offered the young lad by the principal’s famous wife Olufunmilayo, whom Soyinka fondly referred to as Beere.

 

Soyinka started building his stature as an activist early by serving as a go-between between his mother, Wild Christian, and Fela’s mother, Beere, in the Women’s Movement that demanded the abolition of taxing women from the District Officer, the Alake of Egbaland and his Council of Chiefs.

 

When The New Yorker asked if it was “a natural step for [him] to be sort of an activist, … and also an artist at the same time,” because of his lineage, Soyinka’s response was an enlightenment that is both a paradox and an oxymoron: “It remains a mystery to me, and why should it be a mystery? It’s because, basically, I would rather not be all these things. In other words, an activist. I ask myself, I don’t know how often, “How on earth did you get on this path? Why don’t you just stick to what you love, really love, doing?” Which is, writing bits of poetry, writing plays, directing plays, exchanging ideas, getting into arguments simply because we live, also, with abstractions, and anybody who believes in the essence of things, the theory of things, loves the discourse about it, and this I enjoy, which is why I’m also a teacher by profession. I would rather be doing all those things, honestly, but I end up using that expression of ‘closet masochist’ for myself because I’m doing certain things which I know I would rather not be doing. But I also love my peace of mind, my tranquility, and I cannot attain that—that’s a contradiction—I know I cannot attain that if I have not attended to an issue, a problem, which I know is pernicious, which I know is manifesting itself in a dehumanizing way in others, whether human beings, environment—child abuse, for instance. So, we’re not just talking about politics. We’re just talking about humanity—this is one of me. I get restless when I see such situations, and the only way I can attain that peace which I love so much, which I only very sparsely enjoy—that’s what drives one out again and again and again, using other means when once literature fails one, fails to address the issue. Then, of course, you have to address it frontally, physically, by whatever means.”

 

In Soyinka’s second year at AGS, he sat for an examination in the bid to win a scholarship into the prestigious Government College, Ibadan (GCI) because his father wanted the best education available for the lad. Soyinka passed the exam and was summoned for an interview in Ibadan, and for the first time in his life he had to make a long travel without his parents or any elders. He eventually got admission into GCI but did not win a scholarship. Most of the students of GCI, drawn from all parts of Nigeria, were men just as in AGS, though a good number of them were nearer his age bracket.

 

 

One of his mates was Olumuyiwa Awe who recalled that even in Class Four Soyinka was so small in size that he was appointed the Captain of Mosquito Football Eleven, a team made up of Class One or Two students!

 

The young Soyinka was a scorer for the cricket team, touring with the squad to such far-flung schools as Government College, Umuahia; Kings College, Lagos; Edo College, Benin; and Government College, Ughelli.

 

He left GCI in December 1950 and was in January of 1951 appointed a stores assistant in the medical stores of the Government Medical Department in Lagos.

 

Soyinka wanted to start a career in journalism but failed the written test of the Daily Times, as he kept on writing all of eight foolscap sides of lined paper instead of just writing on the required imagined market fight as ought to be published in a newspaper. The white invigilator had to snatch Soyinka’s reams of writing paper, snarling, “I need my lunch. You were not asked to write up the entire newspaper, just report an incident.”

 

In 1951Soyinka had one of his short stories broadcast on the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS). It was then the aspiring writer mastered typing and bought his first typewriter.

 

He quit the job at the medical department in September 1952 following his admission into University College, Ibadan (UCI). A major highlight of his UCI days was the founding of the Pyrates Confraternity, aimed at abolishing convention, reviving the age of chivalry, and ending elitism and tribalism. The original seven founders of Pyrates Confraternity are: Wole Soyinka, Muyiwa Awe, Ralph Opara, Pius Oleghe, Ikpehare Aig-Imoukhuede, Ifoghale Amata and Nat Oyelola.

 

Soyinka left Ibadan for Leeds University, England, in October 1954 but continued to send articles as “Epistles of Cap’n Blood to the Abadinians”, published in the campus publications The Eagle and The Criterion edited by his friends Pius Oleghe and Ralph Opara respectively.

 

 

In one of the articles, he wrote of the strong winds blowing in England which pushed his hand so sharply that he ended up shaking the person behind him when he had wanted to shake the hands of the man in front of him!

 

In yet another article, he wrote of a white girl who kept staring at him until he felt he had won the girl’s love only for the girl to retort that she was only wondering how many averagely sized noses can be made out of Soyinka’s big nose!

 

Soyinka was engaged as a play reader at Royal Court Theatre, England, where he showcased his first play The Invention and read his classic poem “The Telephone Conversion”.

 

He returned to Nigeria in the Independence year of 1960 and won The Encounter Independence playwriting award with A Dance of the Forests.

 

He was in 1965 arrested, tried and discharged as the “unknown gunman” who snatched away the Premier of the Western Region’s tape and made his own pirate broadcast from the Ibadan studio of Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.

 

He was detained by the Federal Military Government between 1967 and 1969 for daring to engage in talks with the rebel people of Biafra in Nigeria’s Eastern Region.

 

A prolific genius, Soyinka has published some 30 plays, three novels, six collections of poetry, five memoirs, uncountable essays, two feature films, a novel translation etc.

 

 

Soyinka starred as the eponymous lead actor in the film adaptation of his play Kongi’s Harvest, directed by the legendary African American Ossie Davis and produced by Francis Oladele, though he would later disassociate himself from the movie because of the misguided changes made therein. Soyinka’s other film, Blues for a Prodigal, served as a warning in 1983 for thieving Nigerian politicians who were of course thereafter overthrown by the military.

 

The crowning glory for Soyinka was of course the award of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy awarded the prize to Wole Soyinka “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.”

 

It is worthy of record that the next legend of July, Olu Jacobs, in a dramatic way met his wife, Joke Silva, through Wole Soyinka thusly: “I was invited to do a play at the National Theatre. I was to play the lead in Wole Soyinka’s Trials of Brother Jero. We were having introduction meeting and the door opened, this lady walked in, and she said: ‘We are ready.’ Immediately, I stood up and said, ‘Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. Please meet the lady I want to marry’.”

 

Olu Jacobs and Joke Silva have ever since been in wedlock for well over 40 years! A high toast to the one surviving celebrity marriage in Nollywood and beyond!

 

 

Like Soyinka, Olu Jacobs enjoyed his early life in the Ake area of Abeokuta where he was a regular at the viewing centre of the television that Chief Obafemi Awolowo introduced in the Western Region. He was greatly inspired by the exploits of the television stars such as Julie Coker and Ted Mukoro whom he saw as being magical. After witnessing a spellbinding performance of Hubert Ogunde’s theatre troupe in Kano, he made up his mind that acting would be his life.

 

He travelled to England in 1964. He learnt in the London area that one needed to belong to the union before one could get an acting job. He was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.

 

He broke into the British stage, acting in plays such as Murderous Angels by Conor Cruise O’Brien, Richard’s Cork Leg, Black Man’s Country, Julius Caesar, A Kind of Marriage, Night and Day etc.

 

 

While in England, Olu Jacobs featured in films like Ashanti, Dogs of War (based on Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling novel), Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, Pirates etc. He featured in many television shows and series such as The Goodies, Till Death Do Us Part, Barlow at Large, The Venturers, Angels, 1990, The Tomorrow People, The Professionals, Squadron, The Witches and the Grinnygog, Rumpole of the Bailey, Play for Today etc.

 

Returning to Nigeria, he married the delectable actress Joke Silva in 1989. Husband and wife jointly set up the Lufodo Group, a company involved in media, theatre production, distribution, and running the Lufodo Academy of Performing Arts.

 

Olu Jacobs has acted in more than 100 Nollywood movies, and in 2007 won the African Movie Academy Award in a Leading Role. At the 2013 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards, he was honoured with the Industry Merit Award for outstanding achievements in acting.

 

 

In a chat with The Nollywood Reporter on the significance of Olu Jacobs to the performing arts in Nigeria, Richard Mofe-Damijo, quintessential Nigerian actor who has worked with and observed Jacobs from close quarters, suggests that Jacobs is godlike in manner within the community of Nigerian actors. According to Mofe-Damijo, “Olu Jacobs came down from his Olympian height at the time and gave us his shoulders to climb and rest on. After all, this was the same man on the Ribena advert and to be sharing a stage or screen with him was all I needed to tell myself I was in the right place.”

 

He is bravely battling with Dementia with Lewy Bodies, as disclosed by his wife in an interview.

 

Jimi Solanke, on his part, began his professional acting career in 1961 as a pioneer member of Orisun Theatre Group, founded by Wole Soyinka. Of course, Soyinka is as ever the linkage.

 

Educated at the University of Ibadan where he took a diploma certificate in drama, Jimi Solanke established an early reputation in stage acting. He was a budding talent in the 1960s when Ibadan served as the epicentre of the arts that featured Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, JP Clark, Demas Nwoko, Ulli Beier and the Mbari Club.

 

He acted in Kongi’s Harvest and the film Sango.

 

 

Jimi Solanke played the lead role of Basi in the BBC recording of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s prize-winning play “The Transistor Radio” on July 23, 1972. He created a drama group called “The Africa Review” in Los Angeles, California, USA. It was while performing with the group that he established a reputation as a “master storyteller”, as CNN described him.

 

He is a total theatre personality, as he says: “I act everything I sing.” A committed Thespian, he is at once an actor, a singer and a dancer, all intervolved in performance. In telling his stories he can mimic the sound of a chicken or a lion or a tortoise.

 

He is poised to develop a centre for creative and performing arts enhancement known as Ibudo Asa in Ipara, Ogun State in the manner that Hubert Ogunde built a film commune in his Ososa village. He feels that most graduates of theatre arts need enhancement to fit into the great heights of theatrical performance.

 

 

He is equally adept at performance poetry and holds groups of children in thrall with his storytelling skills.

 

It is indeed astonishing how young, agile, busy and vibrant Jimi Solanke looks at 80.

 

In a recent interview with Premium Times, Solanke reveals the secret of his youthfulness: “This body we carry around is a machine. If you love to eat too much and feed it indiscriminately because you have money, the machine soon gets overworked and might just give up. Man does not come to this life because of ponmo and Amala, not just for bread.  … I’m choosy about what goes into my stomach. My diet essentially consists of green vegetables, ewedu especially. I drink ewedu like water and I do not eat any meat but fish. I hate maalu (beef). I don’t eat it at all. … I eat fruits, nuts, palm, and epa (groundnuts). Since days back, if two handfuls of epa get inside of me, I will live for the next two days. I never feel hungry. It’s all in the mind. The state of mind is also very important. I live a contented life.”

 

 

Solanke is a Christian who is steadfast with fasting. He remains undaunted and wants to conquer many more grounds.

 

Wole Soyinka, Olu Jacobs and Jimi Solanke deserve celebration as icons born in July who lend to the theatre world consummate professionalism and accomplishment.

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