BY CHUKS NWANNE
THE way popular actress, Joke Silva, introduced Oxzygen, a theatre troupe contracted to perform the late Abioye Aronke Taiwo’s poems live on stage, stuck on my mind as we sat in the hall waiting for action to resume on stage.
“For Joke to have so much confidence on this group, there’s every reason to see them,” a colleague of mine observed; actually, we were about heading for another engagement.
Those who saw the first and second part of Oxzygen’s performance of the late Abioye’s collection, Fear Abides With Me Constantly, edited by Toni Kan Onwordi, would surely agree that the poems couldn’t have been done better. Even the late author’s mother, Mrs. Taiwo Taiwo, who was short of words, testified to that fact while appreciating the troupe for a job well done.
With cheers and encomiums pouring in for the troupe, I was more interested in knowing the brains behind the production.
To my amazement, young Zara Abimbola Udofia was introduced by Joke as the producer; she got a resounding round of applause from the sizeable crowd present.
At that point, I resolved to have a one-on-one with the young lady. We exchanged contacts, hoping to hook up the next day at the National Theatre.
Zara was in a meeting with some theatre practitioners when I arrived; she was the only female in the session. Minutes later, we are sitting face-to-face.
“Sorry I kept you waiting; I didn’t know this meeting was going to last this long,” she apologises, putting her belongings on the table.
Was that a production meeting?
“No,” she says. “Well, it’s about something that I didn’t get right last time, so, I’m seeking for advice from people on that. Sometimes, you find yourself in a situation where you got stuck and you need advice from people, maybe someone younger or older. So, it’s a human decision and it happens.”
ZARA’s acting career could be traced back to her secondary school days when she was discovered by a group of theatre practitioners in 1992.
“I met Charles who’s now in America, Ofili Joseph, who’s now in England and Sunday Okunumu, who’s a professional photographer… basically three of them discovered me; they saw that I had something they could work with. They had a drama club; it was a group of students from two schools, who came together to form a troupe.”
From accompanying her cousin to rehearsals, Zara wormed herself into the troupe.
“It all started as a joke; my cousin was a member of their troupe, so, sometimes I followed her to their rehearsals. Somehow, I go involved in a play they were doing called King Emene. Then, I was in JSS 3. When the production ended, I thought that was the end of it. But Sunday Okunumu came back to my house and asked my mother for a permission to take me to the National Theatre. He brought me to the Theatre where I met Israel Eboh; that was my first time of stepping into the National Theatre.”
And how was the feeling?
“Oh my God,” she screams, “I’d always seen the National Theatre when we drove past and I’d wished I could go there; it looked like a Disney land, somewhere magical where a lot of things happen,” she enthuses. “So, there’s this curiosity in me; I just wanted to know what happened there, but you never get to have such opportunity.”
She continues: “The National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) was rehearsing for Soyinka festival that year, so, they were doing series of Soyinka’s plays.”
Though Zara’s first visit to the Theatre had got nothing to do with seeking for role like some artistes normally do, she ended up as a cast member for Iku olokun esin, written by Prof. Akinwunmi Isola and then been directed by Segun Ojewuyi.
“I actually came to meet Israel for something different; they wanted a teenager they could send to 7Up for an advert, so, Sunday told Israel about me; I was really excited that I was going to be on TV, but Israel wanted to see what I looked like. We met him that day at the Cinema Hall 2,” she muses.
However, due to some crisis in the country at that time, the recording could not hold, but Zara got a compensation that paved way for her in the theatre circle.
“Israel asked if I could speak Yoruba, and I said yes. So, as compensation, he asked if I would like to be part of the crew for Iku olokun esin, and I accepted it. I was paid N1000 for my role; that was my first salary ever,” she says with smiles.
HAVING gone far in her acting career, Zara ventured into studying theatre at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, after her secondary education, but that dream was cut short.
“ I saw what was happening, but I didn’t stay; I left.”
“Maybe I got cold feet; but I knew I wanted to do drama,” she notes. “It was just a lot of craziness that I didn’t understand; I spent a night in Ife. I went to the department and there were lots of rehearsals; there was so much going on. But I felt I wasn’t ready for this part of the journey, so, I returned to Lagos and joined Gong Beat Art, a theatre troupe, where I continued acting and dancing for about three years.”
She had then been involved in many other major productions, including playing lead roles in plays that featured in the Afrika Project series, a collaboration between Ben Tomoloju-led Kakaaki Arts Company and Jide Ogungbade’s Rotom Productions, facilitated by the Goethe Institut, which toured Germany in 1998; as well as in Things Fall Apart, which toured the United States and United Kingdom.
However, when Zara finally decided to go back to school, it was not for theatre; she headed for the History and International studies department, Lagos State University. Yet, she was active with her acting.
“At some point, I added radio production to my courses and I got my first opportunity to do radio in 1997, when Ben Tomoloju did Askari for Red Cross; we were on radio and TV. It was amazing; I heard my voice on the radio for the first time,” she enthuses.
WORKING closely with actress, Joke Silva, finally shaped Zara’s theatre skills to the point of partnering with another like mind, Toritseju Akiya Ejoh, to form Oxzygen.
“I met Joke Jacobs some years ago and I started working with her. I used to wonder why aunty Joke took special interest in me. Apart from working with me as actress, she was so interested in taking me through things. She had this training session that she used to do with children in school, teaching them elocution, drama and so on; she incorporated me as one of her instructors.”
From understudying Joke, Zara grew up to taking Joke’s place in her absence.
“At some point, I was handling three of the Corona International Schools (Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Gbagada). It was amazing that she trusted me so much with so much. So, it was a surprise to me that someone will take such time to invest in someone else. Along the line, she recommended me as a consultant. Last year, I consulted for Action Health Incorporated on their annual event called Teenage Festival of Life. I produced the festival and we had a great time.”
This was exactly how Joke Silver introduced Zara to Mrs. Taiwo Taiwo, where she was contracted to produce Fear Abides With Me Constantly, for Art of Life Foundation, instituted in memory of Abioye, who was killed by a truck driver in GRA, Lagos some years ago. “Towards the end of last year, aunty Joke called me and said there’s something she wants me to do. She gave me a poetry book and asked me to put them in dance. So, I asked her which one we are going to perform and she said, ‘whatever happens in this show is your business, you go and decide the poems you want to do, who’s going to perform… it’s your business.’ At first, it was really scary, but as my mentor, she was with me all the time.”
From the collection, Zara selected 14 poems for the performance.
“Mrs. Taiwo Taiwo was okay with that, but she added Sleep. I picked poems that spoke with me and poems that could be dramatized. All the poems are amazing and bear the same power,” she observes, “but the ones I chose, I did because they spoke to me as an artiste; I could relate with them very easily.”
For Zara, putting up the production was very easy for different reasons.
“Somebody asked me yesterday and I said it was easy because God has been with me all the way. I decided not to employ the services of a professional director, because I wanted to test my ability as a performer. I thought of a challenge of taking it the extra mile; we wanted to do something different.
“We did a workshop, where we tried to pick into the mind of the lady that wrote the poem though she’s no more. We read the poem, trying to hear her voice; we went back and front, trying to get what she meant. The choreography…I just told the choreographer, this is my vision. I communicated the vision to every other member of the crew and we ran with it.”
FOR now, Zara’s dream is to do quality productions that will meet international standards, citing works of one of her mentors, Chuck Mike, as a yardstick.
“Those days, you are sure of getting quality productions from Chuck. But what people forgot was that Chuck Mike was not going to live forever. A lot of people probably thought in their mind, ‘ok, we always have Chuk Mike.’ Now, he’s not there anymore. So, we don’t get to see quality shows anymore.”
Where is Chuck right now?
He has gone back to the United States; he’s American but he married a Nigerian. My dream is to do something close or even better than what Chuck Mike did here and this is my effort towards that.”
In case you have a white-collar job for Zara, you can keep it to yourself or give to someone else; the dancer has no plans of quitting theatre for now despite the challenges.
“Within the last three years, there has been moments when I was really frustrated; maybe because I did a job and I was not paid when I needed it or that I just wanted a change. At a point, I thought of taking up a job to raise money, probably work for six month and resign. But some other people, who know me very well will say, ‘you, you won’t last there; it’s either you run away or they chase you away. So, sometime I pray to God to help me make good decision.”
She continued: “I never dreamt of becoming an actor; though as a kid, I loved Literature; it was my best subject. But I had always wanted to be an airhostess or nurse because I always like the idea of taking care of people. I never thought of taking acting seriously, but when it happened, I felt this peace inside me. Right now as I speak with you, I don’t have plans to do otherwise. Whatever I’m going to do now, must be within this environment I’ve found myself.”
MEANWHILE, those who knew the actress before now might be wondering where the name, Zara, came from.
“Up until 2003, my name was Mary Udofia, but I changed my first name.”
“The easiest excuse I can give you is that I stopped liking the name Mary.”
Mary is the mother of Christ, you don’t like her?
“Oh, I love Mary so much for giving herself and allowing God to use her. But I found out that from Hebrew translation, Mary means ‘of the sorrows or bitterness.’ I couldn’t get that pass over my head, so, when I found out I could change my name, I changed to Zara.”
What does that mean?
“Zara means splendor,” she says amidst laughter.