Taiwo Ajai-Lycett Kissed By The Gods
“It’s been a lush Life” admits the warrior woman from Awori, Dame Taiwo Ajai-Lycett.
She’s been able to dance across every fiery stage, with dazzling smiles and regal shoulders; showing the world the true meaning of grace. The magic has emerged from her courage, her depth of mind and absolute individuality.
Endowed, as Joke Jacobs puts it, “with resilience, a fierce intelligence and faith in this country,” Taiwo Ajai-Lycett has remained “the shoulders on which generations of storytellers stand.”
She performed in Biyi Bandele’s swansong, Eleshin Oba, currently showing on Netflix. She brings her larger than life status and distinctive elucotion to a role specially etched into the flick. On tour of five West African cities since November, this month, she is still performing in Hear Word, and the traction continues among latter day thespians and audiences. Most of them weren’t even born when she first stepped on stage in 1966 to play an authentic village girl in Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel.
The unplanned, yet auspicious role is the stuff of fairy tales. She was in the rehearsal hall just to keep her friend company. She was asked by the director, William Gaskill at the Royal Court Theatre in London to participate. She made a big splash out of a small role and invitations from producers followed.
Taiwo Ajai-Lycett decided to submit herself to a formal and rigorous training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
In 1972, she joined the Traverse Theatre Group for the Edinburgh Festival. The blooming was rapid. A string of television shows paved her path to prominence. The shows included the unforgettable Some Mothers Do Have Them and the legend, Sidney Poitier’s A Warm December.
About five decades after, she returned to the Edinburg Festival as the poster girl for Ifeoma Fafunwa’s Hear Word at the Lyceum theatre.
Although she once played the role of a prostitute in eurocentric wigs, she came to be recognized and respected for her authentic African plaits and couture in an era when African women wanted to be as distant from their culture as possible— bleaching, wearing wigs and dressing more European than the Queen herself. She remained true to her roots and is a herald for latter day icons like Chimamanda Adichie.
Her journey started with a stumble as a girl of sixteen, but by sheer determination, when she returned to Nigeria on holiday in 1971, she had redefined herself and restored the fatherly pride in her father’s heart.
“I’m very proud of you,” he conceded. “And you’ve taken the path of your grandpa. He was a griot and wherever he went, he shut the town down. Bravo, my daughter. You’re radiant beacon.”
Taiwo returned to Europe, ready to conquer the world. But when she met and married Tom Lycett, he convinced her to come home to make an impact in her own country.
Tom Lycett resigned his job with Shell Chemicals as an act of faith.
Thus began her first missionary journey to Nigeria and she became a major source of energy in the national theatrical sphere.
In 2006, the government of Olusegun Obasanjo recognized her contribution to culture in Nigeria by conferring the national award of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) on her.
What are these contributions?
Richard Mofe-Damijo has this to say about the contributoions of Taiwo Ajai-Lycett.
“Taiwo Ajai-Lycett’s contributions to stage and screen is not something we can paper over. In her eighties, she still bestrides both stage and screen like the goddess that she is.
“I’ve had the privilege of playing alongside her both on stage and on screen, and it’s just an absolute delight to see her work. She practices her craft at the highest level. Her discipline, work ethic, approach to characterization, the sheer class and grace that she uses to deliver her lines and get the job done is just something to watch. I think history would always be full of superlatives when trying to describe her contributions to stage and screen.
“Mama T is a generational inspiration for actors. At 82, almost 83, she still strides both stage and screen as if she’s just starting out. The hunger in her eyes is still something that was there probably when she started in England many years ago.”
Toyin Akinosho, a geologist who has sold his heart to the arts, didn’t take a 3:00 am call although that’s his favorite working hour. Toyin’s the twin brother of Jahman Anikulakpo, and they’re both co-engineer of the foremost arts advocacy organization, the Committee for Relevant Arts (CoRA) on which board Taiwo Ajai-Lycett sits as matron, mentor and member. Finally, The Nollywood Reporter tracked Toyin to Abuja, and he had the following to say.
“Every society needs a legend. Every society needs someone to look up to. There’s what you call human history: people who speak from a place of knowing – the knowledge of the craft over the years and an understanding of how it works. There are very few people like that today, but Taiwo Ajai-Lycett [is in that esteemed class]. She’s been there consistently, from day one, doing it well. She bloomed quite early. She didn’t go to the UK to do theater. She went on a survival instinct and she bloomed in performances. I mean Soyinka’s earliest play, she was involved in it. And she was involved in Festac.
“So given that kind of context, she brings panache, class, the quality of diction, eloquence of language that a lot of actors need to work on. She brings everything to bear with her delivery. She breaks it down all the time. She does what she needs to do. She is a force of nature.”
Israel Wekpe is a trainer of actors at the University of Benin where he’s doing his PhD. He’s also a playwright. One of his plays, Joromi, is playing at the Victor Uwaifo Creative Hub in Benin City this December. When he learnt that Taiwo Ajai-Lycett was performing in the same auditorium, he didn’t hesitate to bring all his students to experience a master of the art at work. He told The Nollywood Reporter why.
“When you compare some other actors with her, you realize how terrible it would be not to seize the opportunity, because there’s only one Taiwo Ajai-Lycett. Hers is committed theater: a theatre that has an agenda to set things right. She’s not on stage just for the money. The story has to make sense and change the society. If you look at her track records and see the kind of work that she does, you will realize she doesn’t just do anything unless the thing makes sense. That’s how I see acting.
“An actor with a perspective of how society should be, using her performance to shape the society of her vision. That’s what I feel Ms Lycett brings to the space. That’s how I see her.
“When I refer to her as the matriarch of acting in Nigeria, it’s not because of her age but because of the impact that she’s made on theater. Lycette has internationalized her art. Just imagine taking part in Biyi Bandele’s direction of Soyinka’s Eleshin Oba. Every serious work will like to include her in the cast. Her name is a signpost of a serious theatre. You just know you’re not going to waste your time [because she is] committed to what she does.
“Too bad, you don’t find our actors on our curriculum. It’s pathetic. We’re looking at people who are abroad. The ones closer to us, we tend to not appreciate. So I am pushing to say we have committed actors like her here.
“She’s rigid and fluid as required. See the scene she had with Joke Silva [Jacobs in Hear Word]. That generational thing. The rigor of rehearsal shines through her performance. Her elocution is amazing. And her movement, her dance routine, she’s able to do that because she does exercises. She takes care of herself, her health and that’s what acting does to you. And that’s actually a recipe. I look at her and say ‘how can I be like this?’ We should do better [because] that’s what she wants from us. She’s keeping it beyond glamor and showing the stuff that she’s made of. I’ve been telling my class that this is what you should start thinking about.”
And finally, Ohi Alegbe, former Group General Manager of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, veteran television, radio and print journalist, venerable public relations and advertising practitioner broadens the canvas on Ajai-Lycett.
“Pepper and Ebun Clark, that’s what PEC stands for. What [JP Clark] did was to pull a number of friends together and run it like a Trust. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tom and Taiwo Lycett put some money in the project.
“They used to perform at Onikan there, and I saw many plays there. I think Taiwo Ajai-Lycett played Ebiere in J.P. Clark’s Song of a Goat. Beyond the obvious fact that she was a delight to watch and she had her signature notable elucotion, I may not comment in details about her contribution to theater.
“But do you know she was in journalism? She also ran an advertising agency. I’d done a voice over or two for Taiwo and her husband at the Ray Mike’s Studio in Surulere.They had some accounts. But you know the advertising world is dog eat dog world. It’s like our Nigerian politics. No doubt, she was and probably still is a strong woman.”
For someone who has engaged so many minds and worked with so many professionals, the curtains on opinions will have to be drawn. To close out, let’s hear what valency the darling polymath, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, has received from her craft.
“I like being active. That’s the blessing I’ve got from being an actor. We’ve had years of dancing and movement and being alert and alive to whatever is going on. It’s paying off now as I’m getting older because all that training and rehearsals have developed habits that have become part of my character. I think nature is very active and really very alert. That is from being an actor.”