Ms.Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, turned 70 on February 3.The arts community gathered round to celebrate the 70th birthday of the ageless actress, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, at an event held at Tribeca, Lagos, on Sunday, February 13. Jointly organised by the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) and the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA), the event was tagged, ‘State of the Stage: Conversation With and Around Taiwo Ajai-Lycett.’
In his welcome address, Jahman Anikulapo, programme chair of CORA, acknowledged the presence of the veteran actress, who needed no introduction as she exuded a regal aura where she sat. He spoke of how much she had contributed to the lives of many, adding that the dramatist Wole Oguntokun was the chosen moderator of the Forum because of his immense contribution to stage acting. Ajai-Lycett was going to be in conversation with fellow actresses, Tina Mba and Kate Henshaw-Nuttal; and the fact that Oguntokun had worked with all three was a plus, according to Anikulapo.
Taking over as moderator, Oguntokun introduced guests, including, Francesca Emanuel and Bayo Oduneye, both pioneering performers who had been involved in acting from as early as the fifties and sixties. Other notables in the gathering included: Joke Silva, Dejumo Lewis, Greg Odutayo (President of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners, NANTAP), Tunde Kelani, Pamela Udoka and Teju Kareem.
Oguntokun also introduced and ushered in Henshaw-Nuttall and Tina Mba to their seats beside the celebrant, for a conversation between two generations of Nigerian female thespians.
The event also featured a book reading session by Toyin Akinosho of CORA. His chosen text were Kaine Agary’s novel, ‘Yellow Yellow’; and a short story by Melissa Myambo, ‘Deciduous Gazettes’, from ‘Opening Spaces’, an anthology compiled by the Yvonne Vera.
Akinosho said the reading was a fitting tribute to Ajai-Lycett because he knew how much she loved books. He recalled her words from an interview, “When you send me books, I know you love me.” He then presented the celebrant. Oguntokun noted that the event was a good opportunity to bring pioneering actors together. He gave some background about the celebrant’s formative years as well as those of other accomplished actors present, including Bayo Oduneye and Dejumo Lewis. Not keen on boring the audience with a long speech, Oguntokun got them rolling with laughter. This he did when he got into a reminiscent mood and asked the audience to sing the theme tune of ‘Village Headmaster’, in which Lewis played Kabiyesi.
The celebrant speaks
Responding to the accolades, Ajai-Lycett said she felt honoured to be there and thanked her fellow pioneering actors seated. “A poet is a visionary” that should be listened to and respected, she said, while acknowledging the poet and polemicist, Odia Ofeimun. Ajai-Lycett disclosed that her acting career had started by chance, when she stumbled across Yemi Ajibade on a production. The meeting paved the way for her to act.
Love of the stage
Kate Henshaw-Nuttal also talked about how she joined the Nollywood A-List, thanks to an almost accidental first audition. Although she has made more appearances on screen than the stage, she revealed that she is beginning to love the latter more.
“I love the stage much more than the screen these days. I don’t know why,” she said, laughing. “It’s a virus!” Tina Mba interjected, eliciting a loud roar of laughter from the audience. “It’s fantastic and exhilarating!” Henshaw-Nuttal added. Mba, who admitted to not being a woman “of many words,” said she felt honoured to be sitting down with Ajai-Lycett, who she described as humble and dedicated to her work.
Questions and answers
During the interactive session between the celebrant and the audience, the veteran actress provided answers to the many questions asked. On why she didn’t accept a Nollywood film role offered to her, Ajai-Lycett declared that Nollywood lacks everything she attributed to art. The discipline and respect needed are lacking, she observed, explaining that the the producer concerned had sent her a text and thrown her a script. “Courtesy is of the essence,” she said, adding that many filmmakers in Nigeria lack these qualities.
Nollywood’s highs and lows
There was a vibrant and sometimes heated discussion about the Nigerian film industry, with many in the audience offered their views on the subject.
“We should change our perception of art. Art is supposed to be enriching,” Ajai-Lycett advised. She further urged filmmakers to read books as a means of enhancing their art. Using Wole Soyinka as an example, she said anyone who was not ‘educated’ couldn’t read his book. His books, she said, translate the ideology and philosophy of his country. She asked how many of the filmmakers in the audience had read Ofeimun’s poems. The silence spoke volumes.
It was agreed after a long debate that Nollywood still has a lot to learn. Ajai-Lycett urged filmmakers to learn to be humble, committed to their work, to respect, appreciate and listen to one another. She further noted that even established filmmakers need training; and canvassed for the documentation of the past exploits of pioneering actors a way of encouraging thespians in general. The portrayal of the society at large in movies is also of great importance, she insisted.
A befitting event
There was much laughter during the course of the evening. Singer and Nigerian Idol judge, Yinka Davies, had everyone reeling with laughter when she spoke. The audience also had a good laugh over Nollywood movie titles. The moderator said it is easy to tell a Nollywood movie apart by its titles and soundtracks, because they are often funny and weird. He said this suggests that Nigerians have very limited ideas about appropriate film titles.
The highlight of the evening was rendering a moving song to Taiwo Ajai-Lycett and female power. Tina Mba got all the women in the audience to sing for five women worth celebrating in the Nigerian movie industry. The five women – Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Francesca Emanuel, Toun Oni, Iya Awero and Iya Rainbow – were celebrated, as females in the audience rose to sing ‘Iyaniwura’ (Mother is Golden). It was sung with such lustre that Taiwo Ajai-Lycett got on the dance floor. The men were also not left out, as Dejumo Lewis led all in the audience to sing to the veterans and fallen soldiers of the movie industry.
Things to do
At the end of the event, Jahman Anikulapo reiterated all that had been said and agreed upon. He urged the Greg Odutayo as NANTAP president to design programmes to train and mentor upcoming and established actors. He also urged writers and journalists to write about Taiwo Ajai-Lycett. He argued Nollywood shouldn’t be knocked down entirely; rather, “it should be changed, if it is our face to the world.” He further suggested that NANTAP should work hand in hand with the Association of Nigerian Authors, so that more movies would be adapted from literature, like Kelani’s movies.
As for Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, she was humility personified. “The only thing I don’t know is what I don’t know,” was among the memorable things she said on the day.
Taiwo Ajai-Lycett LIVE