Monday, August 15, 2011

Sam Loco Efe... Theatre King Of All Time

As had been stated elsewhere, only the Drama king himself could have pulled off the wild, morbid drama that attended the announcement of his own passing last week. Confusion reigned for nearly the whole week about the true state of affairs concerning the status of the evergreen master of the stage and screen; and not even the various clarifications by members of his family and his younger colleagues with whom he had been working when death called, could douse the terrible mix-up about the true state of his passing.

Well, Sam Loco Efe, a grandmaster of the Acting vocation, transited to greater service last Sunday.

Yet another confusion: someone had widely circulated the information that he was 66 when he died. Sam was indeed in his 70s; 73 more believably. Were he to wake up today, Uncle Sam, as his protege (I inclusive) call him -- would have turned this confusion over his age to a masterful drama skit... can’t imagine the fate of his listening audience at such a session...

In 1990, when Sam Loco Efe clocked 50, we had sat through nearly four hours of drinking and 'shacking' — somewhere in Festac Town, Lagos. Of course, it was in a beer joint, where else? The chat turned out to be one of his most comprehensive interviews in the media to date. A request to have an update of the interview on occasion of his 60th birthday a decade ago, was humorously rejected by the humour merchant... “ never even finis paying for the carton of beer wey you promise me for the last one.. na cold, ice, beer tutu i want o”. And he broke into that famous michevious laughter. The matter ended there.

Last year, however, when the management of the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas, NLNG, as had been traditional with them, decided to honour Sam Loco as the Special Guest of Honour at the glamorous gala night that usually wrap up the yearly Nigeria Prize for Literature, NPL competition, the reporter reached out to Unce Sam again for the possibility of an interview; he declared: ‘I go do am, but this time around, i go send your bank account into the red’ (this was a throwback to an old banter in the 80s, when as a Theatre Arts student at the University of Ibadan, i had approached Uncle Sam to star in a play -- an audacious move indeed for a student, for by then Uncle Sam was already a legend in the Ibadan theatre circuit... ‘I go send ya papa’s account into the red sea’, stated the older folk in the presence of his best friend, Joe Emordi, Oga Joe (late) -- both of whom had played great altrusic role in my student directing career and engagements. Before that encounter, the two elderly fellows had collected enough beer, kolanut and cigarette egunjes from the poor student with the promise of appearing in his play, Trial of Dedan Kimathi. The dream never was.
That promised interview never held.

Two weeks ago, when I called Uncle Sam for yet a request, he apologised that he had been busy helping to set up some Acting Schools in Uganda, and The Gambia. That was probably his last major assignment aside his numerous acting engagements on the screen.

The 1990 interview is hereby reproduced as part of the long-owed debt to a great man with the heart of gold. Simple to say... but for the generous love of Uncle Sam and Oga Joe, and some in their age and professional brackets, one’s directing (indeed university education) career could have remained hung like the ‘strange fruit’ on the tree of unfulfilment.

AFTER about five decades of sojourn on the earth, three of which has been entirely spent in the thespian trade, the present socio-economic status of Samuel Efeimwonkiyeke a.k.a Sam Loco Efe, is the composite story of the Nigerian Theatre. Over 1,000 theatre appearances on stage and on the screen with innumerable shots on the air waves, the saddening aura of the theatre trade comes forth overwhelmingly, when one encounters Sam.

So much of hardwork, high level of commitment, an eccentric lifestyle that almost qualifies him as a social derelict, yet the artist toils and toils but reaps no commensurate returns. Added to his burden, he is forever strewn in the web of short-sighted cultural administrators and insensitive cultural policies and even his own self-persecutory perception of his trade and of himself. His solace often is laboriously hinged on his frightening disillusionment with his society, which has made him embrace a reckless living culture — of booze, of non-conforming ideological stand and at times, of drug addiction. More interestingly, he squares up to his tragedy through self consolation.
Yet, like Sam Loco Efe, the master humorist and accomplished actor reasoned, there is no gnashing the teeth. In fact, “time will vindicate the artistes”.

To Sam, who won the accolade of Locomotive (Loco) as a budding footballer in his elementary school days, the tragedy of the Nigerian theatre is a reflection of the tragic wind in the national psyche.

“The wrong people are always put in control of right places; irrelevant people are always put in control of right places”.
Coming down to the specific, Sam, the only son of Mr. And Mrs. Arase Efeimwonkiyeke (wealth has no time limit) of Ogboka, Benin City, noted that theatre administration is often given out as a “settlement for the boys”; querying: “When has any practising artist been made the head of the theatre administration?” In fact, he identifies orchestrated attempts “by design or by stupidity to muzzle the artist.”
Sanitising the theatre business would involve several seemingly irrational yet credible moves. For instance, Sam Loco would, if he has his ways, close down the National Theatre and NTA for several months and then call for fresh recruitment. As he pointed out, “there are too many cultural officers at the National Theatre doing nothing.”

More importantly, however, the versatile artiste warns that there is an urgent need by the artistes to awaken the theatre from its ìdead houseî status, otherwise, “it might be extinct.” To achieve this, the artistes would not only require their collective wits but fight individually to defeat the divide and rule strategy with which the government has been handling them. In his words, “several attempts have been made for several decades to unite the artistes but they have refused to be united and the government is happy about it. It’s sickening”.

Sam, who should have celebrated his 30th anniversary of stage artisanship in October 1990, having debuted in October 1960, sounded unbelievable — when he reckoned that there are not more than 20 credible English medium theatre artistes in Nigeria. Says he:“A lot of the artistes at the National Theatre and the NTA are mere pretenders to the throne”.

He lamented the topsy-turvy state of Nigerian theatre, in which case, an artiste’s professional career starts from the screen and graduates to the stage instead of the normal course of arrangement. Perhaps that is why he confesses, rather soberly, that each time he reflects on Nigerian theatre scene, he weeps. Wails Sam: “Itís getting so bad in all ramification. The NTA can feed you with shits. The audience too is still educationally backward to ask questions, so they consume whatever shit they are fed with.”

The Sam Loco story is a novel experience, packed with bluesy news and colourful crafts. In 1960, during those days of euphoric independence celebration, Sam debuted with an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar where he played Ceasar. He recaptures the period; “we were living very close to Afrikpo, near Umuahia, now Imo State”.

However, before the 1960s, Sam, having tapped inspiration from a popular radio compere, Ukonu, had already been thrilling the Eastern Nigeria as master of ceremony at gatherings. This was where he was persuaded to join the drama club of Government College, Afikpo. His local influence was just beginning to blossom in the late 50s when his father was transferred to Abakaliki, now in Enugu State. The move brought a new fate to his romance with theatre.

According to him, “I took a bold step, called primary school boys together and then tried staging Julius Ceasar — in the Western Cowboy format.î Sam relishes the fun of the experience, because even a ‘fighting Julius Ceasar’ was more of an abnormality.

Nevertheless, the experience paid off when Sam entered his production for the Independence Anniversary Drama presentation as the only primary school participant among a list of Secondary Schools. “I emerged the best overall actor even among the lump of college boys that participatedî. With the feat came the first official acknowledgement. The district officer then, whose name he remembers as Mr.White, rewarded him by depositing his tuition fees for the next five years at St. Patrick’s Primary School. This helped in offsetting the financial blues he was encountering in his whopping 13 years of sojourn in primary schools!

Before the largesse, he recalled, “I was hawking Akara at every other year, to make money to pay for the school fees of my sisters and myself. I sell Akara this session to pay for next session. So, I spent 13 years in about six schools.”

In 1960, while a student of Presbyterian College, Afrikpo, Sam recorded what he considered a breakthrough. He produced and played the lead role in Doctor in spite of Himself. His exploit continued and resulted in his 1961 staging of Vendetta, a play he wrote, directed, produced as well as played lead role, Reverend Bush. That play, he said, underwent a process of growth up till the time he entered Form 5 and it was presented as a Benin City entry for a festival.

Now there was a clog in Sam Loco’s theatre exploit then: “I was more science inclined in school; so my principal thought I should concentrate on playing football (a business, he had become well known for), since he thought that was more science inclined,” Sam said, following the pressure from the principal, he resorted to practising his theatre during holidays when he was able to travel extensively to the suburbs, to spread the gospel of theatre.

Sam.. the Locomotive Soccer Wizard

BEFORE the outbreak of the civil war, Sam Loco’s popularity grew in two-prongs: he was winning laurels both in football and theatre. In fact, while the name Locomotive came to represent his popularity in the game of football, the town of Aba was bubbling with the Loco theatre road show.
“During the war, I served my nation in two capacities”, recalled Sam, reflecting that he was one of the young acculturated non-Igbo boys who responded to the Biafran leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu’s call for support, in his secession bid.

Sam spent five months on the ëpolice actioní case at Onitsha, Enugu, Asaba and later at Benin — as he suspected — “because I know the geography of the area very well.”

Between late 1967 and early 1968, Sam in course of the civic war, drifted to the Midwest, where he set up the Ovonramwen Theatre Group recruiting artistes from the community of young but talented enthusiasts. The OTG, which debuted with Ogierhiakhi’s Obaiwape, was later, as Sam claimed, to dust the giant actors in the ‘old-breed’ Midwest Playhouse, who had been dominating the scene then. The force of the ‘new breed’ group, according to Sam, was to reach out and accommodate the lot of young artists who were not able to join the Midwest Playhouse then because of the domineering status of the elderly actors.

“We became the ‘Maradonas’ that conveniently replaced the Peles from raw experiences. Even technically, we flogged the Midwest group, which was riding high then following a great outing with a play in 1968.”

In 1969, the OTG dabbled into a competition, staging Wale Ogunyemi’s Night of Oro Call, which became the toast of the locality. The feat earned the troupe warning letter from Chief Bola Ige’s Chamber querrying their right to stage the play without the author’s permission. Sam recalls, “we all ran back to village and so did go for the competition”. However, the incident was then to become the attracting force of Sam Loco to Chief Chief Ige and even Wale Ogunyemi later in his theatre career at Ibadan.

In 1970, Sam Loco crossed to Lagos, now fully engrossed in footballing, he played for ECN club and Leventis Football Club known as the ‘Iddo Tigers’. However, Sam quit the team after a stint because “the salary was not regular and there was this strong competitor who was always taking my place. Since we were being paid per march, I was not earning much since I could only play when the bagga was off duty.”

...The Road to Stardom

Sam, born December 25, got admission to read political science at the University of Ibadan in 1971, but could not honour it since, he was shortlisted for employment from 6,000 applicants at Michelin tyres. He was earning £60 as a sales representative. The salary, says he, was so enormous that it even trippled the earnings of university graduates then. That was why, as he joked, “my in-law got excited that he advised me to forego school and face the job.”

He served Michelin for two years and got sacked for reckless driving, having bashed his official car at Abeokuta. He hopped over to Dunlop in 1973 and served as Senior Sales Representatives, Tyres and Allied products, on a salary of £80 per month. He was transferred to Benin in 1974 and was still there in 1976, when Dunlop, not being able to cope with his increased involvement in Drama, got him sacked. The company was particularly irked by his involvement as a pioneering cast member of Hotel de Jordan. In his reflection: “I tried to explain to them my passion for drama but I roped myself in the more because they discovered I had actually been abandoning my duty post to attend the recordings of the programme.”

While still with Dunlop in 1976, he mounted Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not To Blame, where he played King Odewale. It was the production that eventually sealed his fate with the nostalgic FESTAC ‘77 presentation of Langbodo, which has become his landmark achievement in theatre till date. While staging the play, a student from the University of Ibadan, who was impressed with his effort, hinted him about the impending audition for Langbodo at Unibadan.. “He told me a lot of money and fame would be involved”.
Prof. Dapo Adelugba of Unibadan, who was then recruiting cast for the Nigerian troupe to present the play for FESTAC had written to all the Arts Council in the states requesting them to forward the list of their best artistes. When Sam Loco’s was included in the Midwest State’sentry, some officials whom he believed had grown wary of his one-man hit shows that had at various times exposed the inadequacy of the council’s works, sought to remove his name from the list.

He recalls: “My name was juggled several times, but one, Mr. I.G. Umoru decided to use his power to include me because he knew that the politics that attended the juggling of my name had a mischievious undertone.”

Umoru’s, as it turned out, became prophetic, Sam Loco topped the list of the people Adelugba selected from the Midwest.
Yet another battle at Ibadan, during the preparation for the play.

Sam had a trouble over a list of big time actors already assembled. Says he, “There were the Jimi Solankes, the Akin Sofoluwes and even the younger ones such as Segun Bankoles”.

In his account, his battle for assertion in this pool of stars was movielike. He auditioned for the role, Obong of Calabar, he won; then for Ostrich, which he lost to a younger boy from Benin. Eventually, he had no role and was advised to join the technical crew and the crowd or teach the Edo songs in the play.

For these roles, he was placed on Level 04, salarywise. “One day, Jimi Solanke was late for rehearsals, I was asked to read the role. Immediately, Adelugba promoted me to Akaraogun understudy 5 and moved me to level 6. Later, he catapulted me from 5th Akaraogun to 2nd, understudying Solanke on level 10. From there I won the 1st Akaraogun topedoeing all the others”.

Sam Loco put in his best — using all the tools and even bringing new songs into the play. However, the morning Langbodo was to open for FESTAC at the National Theatre, Sam Loco was struck by a strange illness — had an overbloated leg, which people put as the handwork of his competitors.

Nevertheless, he played the role and even won, as he said, “apologies from the people who caused my strange illness.”

Confronted with the evergreen suggestion that the Federal Government ensemble which featured at the FESTAC should have formed the nucleus of the National Troupe which would have been a solid force by now, Sam looked into the circumstance under which the troupe was disbanded then, and lamented its demise.

In his reflection, “when General Olusegun Obasanjo, then Nigerian Head of State, was going round the camp of participating nations, he was received and treated like a king. But when he got to the Nigerian camp, he was shockingly booed by some team members, especially those seconded from the ministries, who had been placed on an allowance scale of N2 a day while their colleagues, such as myself, picked from outside, were on salary scale. The disenchanted members sort of insulted his person. He got wild, and disturbed, “I mean, being booed by his own camp!”

The incident, he noted sunk the idea of a Nation Troupe emerging from the FESTAC ensemble.

“The one big family relationship we had developed was bungled. We were thrown out of camp.”

Even though he sounded lamentative of the incident, Sam pinned the blame at the doorpost of both the Government and the artistes. In his opinion, Obasanjo behaved too irrationally for a head of state and the artistes too were too careless in their choice of words and action.
Nevertheless, the Theatre exploit of Sam never abated. Like others in the camp, he went back “with tears” to his itinerant theatre world. Two weeks after the presentation of Langbodo, which he said, Obasanjo was too annoyed to watch, he paired with Ben Okegbuale, who was Kako in Langbodo, to mount Sizwe Bansi is dead — the play was well received, having gained from the enormous press coverage enjoyed by Langbodo, coupled with the screening of the same on the Network Television slot.

...A break for survival

Late 1977, Sam Loco became a sales manager with Karo Pharmaceutical and left after the first month salary following a quarrel he had with a colleague, who had boasted that, he was a graduate and so, would not be controlled by “a semi-illiterate”. Naturally, the insult made Sam decide he was going to enter the University of Ibadan for the diploma certificate.

Thus, he went to Ibadan and found himself joining the Unibadan Masque, with a projection of enrolling at the Theatre Arts department. He participated in the company’s nationwide tour, in the course of which he wrote his diploma certificate examination in Kaduna. Before the company returned, he had already been admitted.

Stated Sam, “by right, I wanted to be an artiste, but I found I became an artiste by accident”. He butttresed this thus: “It was that simple insultive word by an idiot at Kano, that made me decide to read theatre arts as a course”

Recalling his diploma studies days, Sam averred: “It ís like walking through a beer parlour, because I had learnt almost enough before I joined the department”. However, he reckoned the period was exciting yet extremely busy. In his words, “I was a rich student — the only one allowed to enjoy his artistic freedom outside. My scripts were all over the Television stations — Ibadan, Ilorin etc. I was in fact, financing two of my kids through nursery school”.

To Ibadan, Sam Loco gave a deserving tribute. Hear him: “Though there is money in the Lagos theatre scene, Ibadan is the home. It is like the factory, Lagos is the market”.

In 1979, Sam founded the Sam Loco Production Company, which he deserted for two months when “I was lured to NTA”.

However, in same 1979, Sam was persuaded by Bayo Oduneye and Jide Malomo, both then of the defunct Unibadan Performing Company. A year later, 1980, he rose to the post of Head of Drama department.

Three and a half years of service, Sam in 1984 was given options of either to resign or be sacked as a result of, he claims, his several P.P. (private practice) on NTA. “I chose the latter, got sacked and went full blast into my exploits on the then Television Service of Oyo State, TSOS.

Around this time, he created the Two Just Men, a popular screen comedy around Oyo State then. In fact, he had three TV programmes running then; Fun Time, which he claimed the Federal Government stole and converted to WAI — since the two were actually focusing on same objective; Two Just Men and then a one hour programme.

The tense political period of 1983 in Oyo State had a crush on Sam Loco’s dream and he seems still embittered about the incident. According to him, Governor Olunloyo had become Oyo State governor on the ticket of defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was so irritated by Sam’s “operation clean Oyo State” through his TV slot, Fun Times. “He thought I was being paid by the Unity Party of Nigeria to condemn the activities of his administration. Also, he thought I was a staffer of the Television Service of Oyo State, so he called for the stoppage of the programme and my arrest.

Sam said he heard the governor’s order and bolted out of Ibadan to Awe, a village near Oyo town. “I was in exile. Mobile policemen visited my house more than 30 times harassing villagers. They could not see me, but they succeeded in killing the programme.”

Where the pain bugs Sam most is the fact that the haunted programme, Fun Times, was then just being considered for sponsorship by a government agency and the makers of Club lager beer.

He however states that he might still sue the management of TSOS, whom he said destroyed his outstanding vouchers worth over N27,000.

Search for Greater Theatre glory
After his forced exit from the UPC in 1983, Sam went back to his Sam Loco Productions but was later invited to Enugu to take part in the Television Series of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The project took him to early 1984. Later the same year, he started planning for secondary school theatre competition to push the case for the inclusion of Theatre studies in school’s syllabus. The project never saw the light of the day.

Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu sent words to him in 1986 to take part in the premier show of KAPO Productions, a new outfit formed by Kunle Adeyemo and Akpor Otebele but financed by Ojukwu. The play was Obi Egbuna’s Winds versus Polygamy staged in 1986. Same year, he did a play on Immunisation for UNICEF and even anchored the show. He was so excited at earning N1,500 for such a simple show that he was convinced Lagos holds the monetary ace. As he said, “man quickly grabbed some money so, naim I say ehn-enh, na so Lagos be. Na im I still den Lagos so o”.

Still in 1986, his resolve to return to Ibadan was shelved when the National Theatre management asked him to direct an in-house production Omezue.

Later, he was contracted by an English woman to direct, Victoria Island, a presentation that was rejected by the National Theatre, because in his words. “it attacked the Umaru Dikkos and their mates in the corruption of the Second Republic. The play was eventually staged under the Sam Loco Productions.

Several plays followed thereafter; Out From The River by Neville Ukoli, then editor of The Mail; Herold John's Moon on a Rainbow shull, done with his National Directorate for employment (Sam was actually a trainer with the NDE in 1987). Around same time he was operating a theatre school at MAPOL Guest House, Ebute Metta. Some of his students from the NDE and his theatre school are now practicing with the Nigerian Television Authority.

30 Years of Stage mastering... 1990

From 1987 till date (1990), “a lot of water”, as he joked, “has passed under my theatre the bridge”. Sam Loco said he’s been involved in one production or the other since then, building up a record stage appearance that, conservatively put, has exceeded 300. He has starred in five films till date; Moyo Ogundipe’s Songbird, Wale Adenuga’s Papa Ajasco, Ladi Ladebo’s The Vendor, A’ Production’s Vigilante and the screen adaptation of Things Fall Apart.

There is, indeed no stopping Sam Loco, even at 50. As at the time of this interview, Sam Loco, the joke machine, was involved in the Fezi Production’s presentation of Femi Osofisan’s Midnight Hotel, featuring as part of the Ahmadu Bello Universtiy Alumni’s Cultural Week (October 30th to November 2nd, 1990). In addition he should this week (of the interview), be at shooting location for the A’ Productions’ forthcoming movie, Ose Sango; which he describes as his most exciting film where “for the first time. I go knack Yoruba shatter all the big Grammar other go knack for the film”.

Sam Loco, who recently joined the cast of TV soap opera, Ripples, informs, “I have being having a baby in the womb for four years now. I want it delivered either this year or next year. Itís going to be a classical example in Nigerian comedy. That’s why I have being shying away from too much appearance on the screen”.

Perhaps no body could sing a better song of celebration but Sam himself as he tunes, “I have spent three consistent decades in the theatre and there is no month I was not involved in one theatre work or the other”.
Yet Sam Loco Efe rolls on into more decades of the span shots.

And the Music Stopped:
(21 years after this 1990 interview)

The Theatre locomotive that Sam Loco Efe almost monopolised for near six decades finally stopped last Sunday when the man with the evergreen talent, tested skill, irrepressible professionalism, robust discipline and verve stepped on to another realm. Inspite of the morbid drama -— seemingly orchestrated by some mischevious or overzealous fellows — that attended the announcement of his passing last week, Sam Loco Efe deserves the huge mountain of tributes and praises that have trailed his memory. The biggest tribute is, however, yet to be paid: the Federal government and administrators of his native Edo State have to go beyond mere ‘letter of condolence’ to his beloeved family, they have to honour Sam Loco Efe. If they failed to do that much, they would have dishonoured not only Sam Loco, but the hundreds of young artistes to whom Sam Loco was a mentor and inspiration, many of whom currently fulfil their life mission on stage and on the screen. The Nigerian government — in failing to honour Sam Loco Efe — would have killed HUMOUR!


1 comment:

tunmi said...

I love this tribute to Uncle Sam. Thank you for taking the time out to compile this.