Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Priestess of Idemili dances in public


DRIVING through the usual Lagos traffic to her Ikeja office was no fun; the whole road was blocked and the rain made the situation worse. In fact, the host was at the verge of dropping a note for me, having waited for long.
“I was wondering if you were still coming,” she says, as she drops the piece of paper and pen she had wanted to use for the note. “I have this production coming, so, I was about going home, hoping we could chat online.” Whaaaaaat? To miss such a chance? Not for all the senseless traffic of Lagos! In fact, sitting face to face, it occurred to me that Clarion is not the type you could send questions to online. The University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) Theatre Arts graduate is indeed, s one-on-one sort of subject. She is chatty, down-right frank, motherly and queenly all in one breath. Indeed, the experience is worth the stress. “No, no, I won’t answer that question because it’s repetitive; I’ve answered it several times. So, I can’t keep answering that… I can’t answer that,” she says repeatedly when I touched on her journey into acting. Hey, but this is 30th anniversary interview, isn’t it? I just want a first hand information, I insisted. She won’t budge: “My Website is there; everything about my background in acting is on my website.” Clarion’s choice of becoming an actress was not by accident. Right from the tender age of five, her mind was already made on the career. “I was inspired by Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor. So, between five and six years, I had made up my mind to be an actress” she muses. However, her father wanted her to be a lawyer; unfortunately, he died early. Her mother, who called in-between the interview, actually struggled against the daughter’s dream, but had to give up along the line… You need to see the smiles the old woman brought on Clarion’s face as she responds, ‘yes ma, yes ma,’ on phone. “By the time I graduated from the university, she knew I had focused on what I want to do.” CLARION started her acting from the academic community, shuttling between the University of Ibadan and the University of Ife until 1984, when she was a cast member in Lola Fani-Kayode’s Mirror In The Sun. “That was my fifth year in acting; I was already grounded as an actress in the university. In the academic community, you are not looked down upon as an actor; you are looked on as a stagecraft person; and there’s a lot of power and respect for you,” she says beaming with smile. To the actress, who has shown her skills on both stage and screen, there’s a big margin between actors of yesteryears and the present crops. “Yesterday, it was about professionalism; it was about excelling; it was about coming on stage and being respected as a master of the art. Today, it’s all about commercialisation; they are not interested in their art; they don’t understand that their act needs to develop; they don’t understand that they need to study their art; that they need the knowledge of history to back up their craft.” She continues: “They don’t even understand that they need to rub minds with the experienced artistes to broaden their scope –– they are not interested in any of these. They actually believe that with one or two headlines on any soft sell magazine that they are there, that they are stars.” Exasperation is written on the youthful face of Clarion, who co-starred wit the Juju musician, Shina Peters in the film, Owo L’agba, directed by Ola Balogun. ASIDE coming from the stage background, which positively influenced her act on screen, Clarion’s winning formula is research and painstaking study of the physical, emotional and psychological make-up of the character she has to play. “My training had a lot to do with who I am as an actress today. The totality of my art borrows a lot from my training in research and my strength in interpretative psychology. If I can’t feel it, then I cannot act.” Meaning that you reject scripts sometimes? “Yes, I do; if you give me a comedy script, I will not take it. I’m a comic relief in my home not as an actor; in my home, I make my children laugh, but that’s another part of me. As an actor, I’m not a comedian; I cannot play comic roles,” she says with laughter. Clarion’s rise to stardom, however, came with its challenges, which in turn nurtured her to become one of the best in the industry. Notable among them was in 1983, when she played King Omajuwa in the premiere production of Fred Agbeyegbe’s The King Must Dance Naked as directed by Jide Ogungbade. “To play the role, I had to act like a man; it entailed breaking my voice and a lot of physical work, sometimes going without food.” Another was in 1997, when she played four different roles in the British adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, directed by Chuck Mike. “Having to be the only actress among the British actresses; having to go for speech course, so that, I could sound like them and be accepted by the audience, was another challenge for me.” In 2000, Clarion was confronted with yet another challenge of playing Oshara (the wife of Oduduwa), the female ancestor of the Yoruba people. “I had to make that character to be larger than life; I made it a strong character to frighten the men. I even had to work up incantations in Yoruba on my own,” she enthuses. Playing the priestess of Efunrun in the Egg of life was another challenging production for the actress, who has featured in numerous Nollywood movies. “Having to play a character that did and does exist; having to find myself in that woman, who has lost all to her deity and was so fearsome that she could even talk down on the Igwe... despite the fact that I was ill, still, the show had to go on.” FOR those, who my think that after three decades of meritorious performance on stage and screen, the fair-skinned, likeable actress has arrived in her career, she says, “I haven’t got to where I’m going and I’m not satisfied with the journey so far. I’m not satisfied because I did not envisage the rot that has taken over the industry.” What rot? “The industry is now about tribalism and gender; such issues are totally out of theatre. I see the theatre that I grew up in, the theatre that I helped to build going down the drains every day.” For Clarion, the problem could be linked to the industry being so porous to all categories of people. “That is what has happened to this industry. And when such things happen, you find opportunists, people, who have no ideas; all they want to do, is to cash on situation. Then when people, who know what is right speak to correct the ills, you see them being attacked from all angles because, those who are doing wrong things are afraid.” But professionals don’t really fund the industry, the so-called ‘quacks’ do; I volunteer; and the stage queen says: “There are two different people –– the financiers and the filmmakers; the professionals are not financiers. If the financiers, who do not know anything about filmmaking had been properly directed, they would not be embracing the ideas of non-professionals hook, line and sinker. It was not the financiers that set up tribal associations in the movie industry; it’s those, who call themselves filmmakers.” On the recent crisis rocking the Actors Guild of Nigeria, AGN, Clarion says, “it’s very sad that an executive would be voted into office to serve for two years, and at the end of the two years, it self-extended its tenure. At the end of another extension of two years, the same executive still refused to conduct election. It had to take the Board of Trustees of the Guild to appoint a caretaker committee, which in turn, found out that the so-called AGN office does not belong to the Guild.” Who owns it then? “The apartment was rented by the president of AGN, Ejike Asiegbu, for the Guild in his own name. It was not rented to AGN, but to Ejike Asiegbu. So, the caretaker committee cannot ask Ejike Asiegbu to leave the office.” She also cleared the air on Kanayo O. Kanayo’s appointment. “I personally do not want us to get confused. There have been talks about the present caretaker committee headed by Kanayo O. Kanayo (KOK), saying that he is the president of AGN; that’s not true. It’s confusing issues and making the situation worse, and it must be corrected. The caretaker committee is made up of three people–– Kanayo, Charles Okafor and myself. Our mandate is to find out what has gone wrong; and most of all, within the next six months, will organise election so that the Guild can have a national executive.” And how far have you gone? “The Committee was put together two weeks ago; I’ve been away to Abuja and Jos. I will be meeting with them to find out what they’ve done; though KOK has been reaching me on phone while away. I learnt he constituted a reconciliation, and fact-findings committees. The truth is that the caretaker cannot really withdraw from Ejike Asiegbu the office, nothing from the office can be retrieved; even the bus that’s supposed to be AGN’s. What happened was that, Ejike sourced for money in the name of AGN for the procurement, but got them in his own name!” OUTSIDE acting, Clarion has been involved in charity works in the past 10 years through the Clarion Chukwurah Helpline Initiative. From the photo album of the Initiative’s events and records on ground, the actress has really contributed immensely to the less privileged. “We source for support from Nigeria, the US and the UK for the less privileged care homes in the country. We bring together artistes to visit these homes and support them through different programmes. You keep low profile on that? “What I’ve been doing in my initiative…in fact, up until some press people joined us on Star Trek, nobody has ever heard of what we had been doing; it’s a part of what I do that is not for public consumption.” Meanwhile, the City People Entertainment has set aside Friday, July 24 to mark the three-decade of Clarion Chukwurah on stage. Scheduled for Events Centre, Bolajoko Hall, Agidimgbi, Ikeja, Lagos, the event will feature performances from different troupes. “They are organising the reception, but my company is supporting to showcase the different areas of my work. There will be performances from the Obafemi Awolowo University Theatre Troupe and a documentary of what we’ve been doing, which will mark the official unveiling of the Initiative to the world.” As a big fan of MJ, I prodded Clarion to know how she received the news of his demise. “I was just coming off set in Abuja when my son called to say, ‘Mum, I think Michael Jackson is dead.’ I rushed upstairs and tuned to CNN; I cried all that night. People were calling me and sending text messages from all parts of the world.” As for the negative reports about Michael, Clarion insists, “I don’t see anything wrong MJ has done; I don’t care. Those who talk… they cannot imagine themselves not having a life from when they were three years old. That night, CNN was trying to bring up the negative sides, but when they realised that the pain was so much, they had to stop. When you are up there, people tend to run you down. He has left his footprints on the sands of time; he’s gone. What about them? Would the same be said about them? I wonder if Ted Turner would have so many people weep over him when he dies.”

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