Out of the pigeonholes

Charles Etubiebi

A Nigerian play and its leading man confront western misrepresentations.

Image via Charles Etubiebi on Facebook.

Interview by
Noah Tsika

Victor Chimezie is a Nigerian actor who hopes to make it big in Hollywood. At long last, his agent lands him a part in a major studio production—an action film that promises to be a blockbuster. The catch, however, is that the project is premised on an all too familiar notion—namely, that Africa is nothing but a war zone, a place where child soldiers run amok. The ambitious Victor has convictions: he had vowed never to appear in such a film, but the opportunity, odious as it is, will mean good money, and it may lead to other, better projects.

The actor’s dilemma forms the core of Africa Ukoh’s remarkable play 54 Silhouettes, which offers a stinging critique of Hollywood’s penchant for pigeonholing Africa and Africans. Writer-director Ukoh recently transformed 54 Silhouettes into a one-man show—a vehicle for rising Nollywood star Charles Etubiebi, who performs all the parts. “The title,” in Ukoh’s words, “alludes to the perception of a culturally diverse people as a homogenous block—54 being the number of officially recognized African countries at the time the play was created (it was actually 53 while I was writing it because the Sudan referendum was in process).”

The play will have its New York premiere on November 20th, 2019, at the prestigious United Solo, the world’s largest solo theater festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

“The play seeks to confront issues of African identity and representation in global media,” Ukoh told me. “It seeks to grapple with the complexities of the portrayal of Africans and ask questions about creative responsibility.” 54 Silhouettes suggests a sort of love letter to Nigeria—to the country’s cultural and linguistic dynamism. “A big part of my writing style was influenced by the sharp-tongued and delightfully raucous nature of Nigerian conversations—particularly from my secondary school experience in Jos, Plateau State—and 54 Silhouettes was the first work where I finally got a good technical handle on how to translate that into dramatic form,” Ukoh said.

“I’m always looking to tell stories that are uniquely Nigerian/African yet connect with global audiences,” he added. “There’s a uniqueness of perspective, of style, of aesthetic, of form, that is tapped into when the story isn’t just about Africa but from Africa. There’s also a remarkable range to African storytelling because of the multiplicity of cultural influences we have engaged with.”

In Etubiebi, Ukoh has found a performer ideally suited to the task of shattering stereotyped notions of Nigeria and Nigerians. Born in Kano but raised in Jos, Etubiebi attended the University of Jos, and spent time at the National Film Institute where he crossed paths with a number of other rising stars and future collaborators, from directors to scriptwriters to fellow actors. He and Ukoh, a trusted artistic partner, were ships passing in the night during their time in the National Youth Service: by a curious twist of fate, both ended up serving in the same Nigerian state, though on successive years.

While still a student, Etubiebi maintained a steady work schedule, appearing on both stage and screen. Even before beginning his university studies, Etubiebi was asked to appear in a film that, while never released, was a useful learning experience for the young actor, who, growing up in Jos, had always aspired to earn a living as a performer. His uncle owned a video store in the city, and Etubiebi would often rent the latest Hollywood hits. (“Sweet, sweet VHS!” he recalls with infectious nostalgia.) The uncle also made his own movies, which often starred members of his own family, with one conspicuous exception: Charles Etubiebi, who, due to various quirks of scheduling, was never available for these family-centered shoots, but who has more than made up for it with a thriving career in the movies, on television, and on the stage.

After relocating to Lagos, Etubiebi became co-director of Theatre Emissary International, a Nigerian organization that not only produces plays, but also seeks to connect aspiring performers and playwrights with opportunities both at home and abroad, all while working to advance the cause of theater education.

I spoke with Charles Etubiebi as the actor prepared for his New York debut.


What was it like growing up in Jos?


Jos is a calm, amazing city to grow up in. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody … I went to one of the same secondary schools as [Nollywood star] Desmond Elliot … Everyone’s interconnected somehow … I met [Nollywood director] Kenneth Gyang in Jos, at the National Film Institute.

I went to Lagos in 2013. It’s supposed to be the center—the place where dreams come true … It’s this big city in which everything is happening, and you want to be a part of it … And then, around March 2013, my friend Taiwo [Afolabi, the founder and director of Theatre Emissary International and the producer of 54 Silhouettes] called me and said, “We got this gig in Sudan.” Theatre Emissary got into the Al Bugga International Theatre Festival [in Khartoum]. That was when I registered for and became a part of the International Theatre Institute [ITI], the performance arm of UNESCO. So, we went to Sudan in 2013 with a two-man performance piece, 2 Characters Undefined [by Nigerian playwright Paul Ugbede]. Before we went, we rehearsed the play for nine days, including at Benue State University, just to test it out, to see the students’ reactions to it. And when we got to Sudan, we performed it as part of a festival, a competition—different countries were performing, competing. I got the award for Best Male Actor—that was shocking. And that gave me the drive to say, “You know what? You’re still on the right path. You should be doing this.” So, I went back to Lagos, and … it was another dry spell. I was supposed to work on a TV series, but it got cancelled. But sometime around November, a friend of mine called me and said, “A friend of mine is in Jos, he’s got this new play called 54 Silhouettes…” And I ask, “OK, how much are they paying?” And he says, “Well, we’re all starting out, and we have to help each other …” And I’m, like, “OK … I mean, I’ve got bills, but … OK.” So, I call Africa [Ukoh, the friend-of-a-friend in question], and we hit it off immediately. I read the script, and I loved it. I went to Jos, and we started rehearsing.

We staged [54 Silhouettes] in Jos, and they loved it. We took it to Abuja, and they loved it there, as well. I go back to Lagos, I start going on auditions, calling all my contacts. I got my big break in a [2015] show called Desperate Housewives Africa. So I do that, and then from there I move to another set, and it just kept on going from there, from job to job to job.

In January 2018, I got accepted to go to a festival in Brazil, in Rio. I’d been to Armenia in 2016 for a Shakespeare festival, and someone [from that festival] recommended me for the festival in Brazil. At the time, I was working on this big TV program, so I was getting paid, and I could afford to travel on my own. The TV show was easy work—wake up in the morning, go on set, run my lines, rehearse with other actors, and then shoot. I had done that, at this point, for about two months, and I [wanted a new challenge]…so I asked [Africa] if he could change the play [54 Silhouettes] to a one-man play, and he said, “You know what? Yeah, maybe I will!” He sent it around July [2018], and then around August, I just went cold turkey on everything else—my TV subscription, everything. And I just read the script over and over again, and rehearsed … eventually with a director from Jos, on my time off [from shooting the Africa Magic TV series Forbidden].


What was it like working for Africa Magic?


It was cool! I mean, every actor wants to work there. It’s like working at a big studio. You’re shooting a show that’s going to show in 44 countries, for up to three years.


You’ve managed to maintain a balance between stage and screen. How would you describe your career in theater?


One thing we like to do as a company [Theatre Emissary] is to try to stage whatever play we’re working on in front of an audience, early on, to get feedback, which is what we did at Benue [State University], before we went to Sudan, and which is what I did in Lagos before I went to Brazil with 54 Silhouettes. In Brazil, most people who saw [the play] spoke Portuguese, but the play was translated [from English into Portuguese], and the translations were projected for the audience to see. And the audience wanted a second show—I was shocked! We couldn’t do a second show, because the schedule was packed, but [the audience response was encouraging]. I got back to Lagos and thought, “What’s the biggest place we can take this [play] next? New York City!”

[But, before we started planning a trip to New York], we got accepted to the Lagos Theatre Festival, which is run by the British Council. We performed [54 Silhouettes] there, and this time Africa came to Lagos and directed it himself. And this is when I most enjoyed the performance, because when you work with someone who actually created the thing … Working with Africa, we have a special dynamic. We ate the play, we talked the play, and when we did it in Lagos, at the festival, I genuinely enjoyed being this character, and telling this story. It was absolutely amazing.

As an actor, I know that I’m supposed to cry on demand, but I don’t do that easily. But the last rehearsal we had [in Lagos] … there’s a scene where the main actor gives this monologue about how we as Africans have to confront stereotypes of Africans—what people see from far off. They say, “Let’s just put them in a box and leave them there.” No, we’re more than that. We’re like every other person. Before you can get to know us—who we really are—you have to really look. Don’t just chalk us up as “black Africans”—first of all, in Nigeria, we have many languages. Let’s just start there, first of all. So we’re a lot more than you see. Africa’s a big continent. Those lines [in 54 Silhouettes], about how we need to educate and reeducate the world about who we really are—at the last rehearsal, I got emotional. And Africa said, “You’re ready.”


How does it feel to be part of this new wave of Nigerian artists—not just Nollywood artists, but Nigerian artists working in multiple media?


It feels amazing. It’s a good time to be an actor—to be a Nigerian actor. Especially at this time when more people seem to be looking at the continent. Just to be able to tell our stories. For me, one of the works I’m honored to have been a part of was [the 2016 film] 93 Days [about the containment of Ebola in Nigeria]. There are a lot of problems with Nigeria, but this was the one time we got something right. And to just be a part of that—to tell that story. And the work—the process, the rehearsals. If you were playing a real person, they would set it up so that you could meet that person. So I met [the late Dr. Ameyo Adadevoh’s] son—we sat and we had a conversation. And the weird thing is we look alike! We all know [Dr. Adadevoh] as this hero, but what I wanted to know was who she—his mother—was, what she was like as a person. This was a child who lost his mom on his birthday. She died on his birthday. He said that even on her deathbed, even as he was crying, she was asking him about his birthday, and his girlfriend—on her deathbed! She was so concerned about everyone else—she put everyone before herself.

At this point, I’m happy that we’re telling our own stories, as Nigerian actors. We’re telling stories that are particular to us. We’re telling the world, “Look, this is who we are, this is what we’re about, and this is how you should address us.” It’s important so that when we come here [to the United States], people know that, if I’m [auditioning] for the part of a Nigerian, I’m not going to be speaking in the same generic “African” accent that everyone has been expected to use. I mean, I love Will Smith [who played a Nigerian role in the 2015 film Concussion], but…

People are beginning to realize the importance of casting Nigerian actors in Nigerian roles—look at Bob Hearts Abishola. It’s a start—a Nigerian actress in a Nigerian role. That’s a start! And I’m excited that at this point in time people are beginning to look for the authenticity that comes from a Nigerian actor playing a Nigerian role. So, as an actor, it’s a good time, and it’s important to come over to this side, to represent yourself authentically here, in the United States—not just as a black actor, but as a Nigerian actor. But I’m also interested in playing non-Nigerian roles, and 54 Silhouettes is helping me with that, especially because of the accent work involved; it lets me play with accents. I met someone here recently, and, after I said, “Hi, I’m Charles,” he said, “You’re from Nigeria?” I’m, like, “Yeah…” He said, “I thought I wasn’t going to understand you!”


Could you say more about Theatre Emissary—about its origins and what the future may hold for it?


Theatre Emissary is a theatre company in Nigeria. We started out in 2012—just me and Taiwo. At that point, we were really just trying to find our footing. We would go out to festivals, like the one in Sudan, but we were also trying to find our footing in Nigeria, as well. Around 2013, we kind of disbanded, because everyone needed to do other things. Taiwo had to go to Canada, as a Queen Elizabeth Scholar at the University of Victoria. We reunited for 54 Silhouettes, and, with Theatre Emissary, we get to travel all over the world. But what we’re also trying to do, right now, is build a theater community back home, in Nigeria. What we’re trying to do is be that channel for Nigerian artists to reach the black world. We’re able to recommend Nigerian artists for various programs and festivals and other opportunities—including in China. We’re here to say to Nigerian artists, “As much as you’re doing here [in Nigeria], there are opportunities outside for you—broaden your spectrum!” Because so many Nigerian artists are working under some of the worst conditions, as artists, and they’re [still] doing very well. If they can do this well here, back home, what would the possibilities be—what would their potential be—outside? So, one of our goals is connecting Nigerian artists to opportunities outside of Nigeria. That’s one of the reasons we remain connected to ITI [International Theatre Institute], which is committed to taking artists from around the world. It’s about a convergence of the arts.


How would you describe 54 Silhouettes? What can audiences expect?


54 Silhouettes is a reintroduction to what it means to be Nigerian, what it means to be African. It’s about the need to look past stereotypes—lots of stereotypes. If I’m chatting with a woman on my phone, here in the United States, and she asks where I’m from, and I say, “I’m from Nigeria,” she’ll block me immediately! She’ll think, “419 scam, or Ebola…” There are so many misconceptions. 54 Silhouettes is an in-depth look into what it means to be from Nigeria, about the heritage that we have, the kind of people that we are. It’s about an actor who is caught in this image—this box—that has been created for him, but it’s too small. He’s saying, “That’s not me. This is who I really am.” It is, in a way, an introduction to the American audience, here—an introduction to what it means to be Nigerian. Look at me for what I am. This is what I am. We are a proud nation. A nation of hardworking people. Things may not be the best, or what they should be [in Nigeria], but we still are here. We have passion. We have things that make us distinct. This is who we are.


And how would you, in your own words, describe what it means to be Nigerian? How do you conceive of your own identity as a Nigerian in 2019?


To be a Nigerian is to be relentless. No matter the odds, no matter what comes—relentless. The odds aren’t fair. You live in a country where the leaders aren’t really concerned about the masses. So, you’re on your own, to work, and make something of yourself. People often say that it’s a broken system—I think that it’s a system that would have been, with broken and unformed pieces everywhere. So what you need to do is pick up whatever pieces you can, create some vehicle, something that makes you mobile—get some form of mobility—and hope that, while you’re doing that, you can pull one or two people up, and hope that they pull up one or two people. I’m not trying to fix Nigeria. I’m trying to live my life, and help the people around me, and hope that they hold their hands out to other people. Because that’s how change starts.

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