By Prince Osuagw
Chief Chika Okpala, popularly known as Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo alias 4:30, is an interviewer’s delight. At least, one would expect to hear those his special grammatical expressions which got the world stuck to the tube during the days of the popular TV comedy series, the New Masquerade.
However, the risk is that an hour interview with Chief Zebrudaya may last up to five hours due to several interjections, distractions from hordes of people who would want a photo shoot with the ace comedian and others who want autographs.
So, when Vanguard cornered him recently at the induction ceremony of fellows of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners, NANTAP, Chief Okpala was his old self, dishing out those hilarious grammatical expressions one hardly sees in any other dictionary except Chief Zebrudaya’s.
Amidst scores of fans who ceaselessly disrupted the flow of the interview, we managed to conclude a supposed 30 minutes interview in almost two hours. But it was worth the time because it was exclusive.
You’ll get to read how he started as a theatre practitioner, how he veered into comedy and the inspiration that led to the special kind of grammar known only to Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo alias 4.30
What does your induction into the body of fellows of National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) mean to you?
First of all, I wasn’t expecting it. I had no pre-information about it. They just contacted me a few days to the award saying they wanted to honour me; I didn’t know the type of honour and I don’t just collect awards anyhow, unless such awards are truly worth it. But I gave them some conditions to test how serious they were but they fulfilled the conditions. So it gives me a great feeling to be so honoured and inducted into a great body like the NANTAP
Let’s look back at your acting career
We have been practising on theatre for a long time now. Right from 1970 when the war ended, we formed groups here and there to entertain people showing the effects of the war on people.
Due to impacts of the war, people were so malnourished; kwashiorkor was killing and ravaging people in numbers. The only thing one could give at that time, to help, was what could make people laugh. So we began to play comedies and move round the cities and villages with it, and anytime they heard we were coming to perform, the hall would be full with people including parents, children and youths.
There was a time government was funding the theatre, did you benefit from it?
Yes. Sometime in that 1970 when I went to Enugu, I was opportuned to see that the government was funding a theatre company. I was contacted to come in and see how I could be part of it. I didn’t know who recommended me anyway, but I got there and they made me the president of the club.
I still wonder why funding theatre was a priority to the government at the time.
It was a rehabilitation strategy. The government wanted to use it to promote interstate relationship and cooperation. Our duty was to go round the states with our performances, which we did, actually. We went to Portharcourt and Calabar several times and also came to Enugu to perform.
Did the idea serve its purpose?
In terms of making people happy, yes, but, in terms of making money, no. Besides, the process of getting money from government to execute a show was very slow and difficult. In fact, at a point, the company wasn’t making money and everybody had to go and look for something else to do.
How did you move from there to become one of the top theatre practitioners Nigeria has ever produced?
Luckily for me, a friend introduced me to Hilltop Arts Theatre also in Enugu, formed by broadcasters and top people in government. We rehearsed a play called “Sons and Daughters” by J. C. Degraft of Ghana. The story was about parents refusing their children to pursue a course of their choice in the school. In this particular play, the child wanted to be a graphic artist but the father wanted him to be a medical doctor. But the man’s mindset changed when he heard that a British collector came and bought some paintings of an artist who was his son’s friend, for about 200 pounds sterling. From that point, he realized that from paintings, his son could also be rich. The essence of the play was to give children some form of freedom to do what they have talent for.
Was this your turning point?
Yes. The show was so graciously and professionally presented and one day it was performed before the then administrator of East-central state, Ukpabi Asika. He was so fascinated with the story and the way we performed. Right there he promised that he would take us to his friend in Kaduna, who would have us perform in the Nigerian army week. It was an opportunity to see those big generals and other big names we used to hear that fought in the civil war.
So, for this play, we went to Kaduna and for the first time in my life, I stayed in a five star hotel, Hamdala hotel, in Kaduna. Remember that Hamdala hotel was the reigning hotel at that time and it was meant for the rich and influential people. But for this Play, I was able to have a whole hotel room in such top hotel, to myself, at the tender age of 16. I had the air conditioner to play with, a telephone to order anything I wanted and was served almost immediately I requested for anything. I couldn’t have asked for more. Again, when we came back to Enugu, the governor also arranged for us to go and perform for the Head of State, General Gowon, at Dodan barracks Lagos. A presidential jet was sent down to Enugu to pick us. So, I said to myself, if it is this same play that is bringing about all these good things which I would ordinarily be reading in the books or watching in movies, then, there must be something in it; I must chase it till the end. That was my motivation, that was what made me go on and ever since I have not regretted.
When you look at what motivated you, what do you think motivates today’s actors or theatre practitioners?
I actually don’t know what motivates them or what they gain because theyare in a different world from ours.
Is there something you don’t get about them?
Everything! I think they are not as serious as we were when we started. One, we had a motive of helping the people ease out the tension of the war and so whatever we were doing we were trying to carry the people along.
I guess that was the idea behind Masquerades?
Of course! You can agree with me that we had a lot of followership when we created the play, Masquerade. We had a lot of Nigerians followership, because we carried the public along. The actors of these days I don’t know how much they carry their people along. I don’t know if I would be wrong to say they do not carry anybody along.
You created a special type of grammar and unique vocabulary that was original to you. What was the inspiration and how did you manage to coin them?
*laughs…* well my grammar is an act in itself. The inspiration came from my former boss, the late James Iruoha, who was the originator of masquerade. One day we were discussing and he told me that there was a third eye to every statement. He said that to interpret someone’s statement in a unique way, you have to use your third eye to see it. In other words, whatever they say has another way you can interpret it as an artiste to produce humour. In the art of comedy, you can’t just say a straight forward sentence and expect it to humour people. But when you see it the other way round with your third eye and say it out, everybody will keep laughing and that was what carried me along in masquerade. I used my third eye to see and interprete whatever makes serious sense.
So what advice do you have for today’s theatre practitioners or actors and actresses?
They should work harder. Where they are not being accepted or their work is not selling, only means they have not looked inwards. They have to look for a way to carry the people along. They should also be looking the way of NANTAP while somebody from NANTAP should also be able to look into them once in awhile. That is the only time they can think and then we will start seeing maturity in their productions.