Veteran actor, dancer, photographer and pioneer member of the National Troupe of Nigeria, Soibifaa Dokubo, talks the Troupe, his career, how he got the name ‘Waka’ and other issues, in this interview with TONY OKUYEME
A lot of your colleagues and teeming fans know you as Waka. Tell us how you got and adopted the name Waka?
The concept of ‘waka’ came into existence when as young men in Pitakwa we had to sponsor our bad habit of ‘elbow bending’…if you know Pitakwa well. Then what is now known as ‘okada” was not in existence. The bikes then we’re prized private possessions of largely dealers in patent medicine and successful traders. We were living in Diobu and had to trek from there to Creek Road, specifically, Nembe Water-side to buy what the colonial masters annoyingly call illicit gin (Ogogoro).
The issue of taking a cab was never considered due to our very low cash supply. Novels stashed in our back pockets, clutching every Kobo we have saved from ‘money wey Dem dash us’ one or two treks from Diobu to Creek Road Water-side… and move to Nembe Water-side where the gigantic canoes are berthed. The drums of ogogoro had little castor oil bottles hanging from the top. You have come to buy wisely, so we maximize our consumption, as it is allowed by an unwritten law, knowing that any of the sellers you approach hurriedly drops the little bottle inside the large drum filled to the brim.
You hear the familiar words: come taste am, if e no good, make you no buy. Our prized savings of 50 Kobo secured in our pockets, we go on a tasting spree. Ol’boy, by the time you have done the10thor11thtastingbeforebuying our 50 Kobo shakis… we don dey. In the process of tasting, if you are smart enough, chances are, we would have had 10 times more than our 50 Kobo can afford. After all that Fringe benefits, we finally buy. Meanwhile, our friends who did not have the prowess to do the long treks and have the chance to do multiple ‘tasting’ are waiting for us around Abba and Afikpo streets.
As emissaries we will trek back to Diobu through Rail Crescent, Bop, Abonnema Wharf Road, Illoabuchi, where our dear friends were waiting for us with chess and scrabble, some playing table tennis. The title of ‘Waka’ was given to those with the ability of athletic prowess who could do those trips. I consciously adopted it as a symbol of ability to be in motion, never static. Whatever you want, go get it. Never be rooted on a spot. In my serious dancing days no one could catch me flat-footed.
What was it about theatre art that got you interested in studying it?
From my maternal grandfather, who was very expressive with singing, dancing and witty, there has been an artist of note in successful generations. My elder sister, Aboiya and my first cousin, the legendary Amatu Braide, my elder brother Anyamebo and Comish Ekiye, insisted I will be a successful artiste and insisted I start work at the Rivers State Council for Arts and Culture (popularly called ‘Cultural Centre) against my wish of becoming a great policeman that will fight and win bad people or a soldier. Before then the connection between Amatu Braide (Amabee, as she was fondly called) was awesome.
I was assisting her to do costumes (only ironing, folding and sometimes taking our parents’ high priced clothes and wrappers to make). My interest in theatre was further kindled after the first time I was called to be on stage in a dance drama, ‘Omoro’ by Comish Ekiye, then director of the Cultural Centre. The joy, fulfillment of people paying to see me helped too. After all, what we saw more then were men in uniform with stern faces.
You were a pioneer member of the National Troupe of Nigeria, under the doyen of the Nigerian theatre, the late Hubert Ogunde. What were challenges going through the auditions and eventually becoming a member of the Troupe?
I had missed playing a part in Things fall apart as a boy. My sister Amabee totes me along to Enugu whenever she wanted to record. On the day they shot the mountainous pounded scene, the boy gave them problems. I recall Adiela Onyedibia turned and saw me. His words: ‘Soibifaa you this boy, we asked you to come and read but you want to hide your talent in the cultural centre.
Let me tell you, this is national.’ He turned away and managed what he had. That was when the young man, uncle Waka as he is called, decided that no matter what it takes, the next thing I heard about a national audition, I must attend. Of a truth, the Cultural Centre had no plans to let go any of us.
Rumours were rife that anyone who auditions may be dealt with. I was resolute, standing out to do the audition in the esteemed presence of Elder Steve Rhodes and Chief Hubert Ogunde. George Ufot was with them. At the conclusion of the auditions, the council presented a command performance that was beautiful. Later, a national publication inviting some short-listed persons to come to Ososa. The period coincided with a possible trip to Arugungu, this meant extra cash for me. The balance in my UBA salary account was not enough to take me to Ososa. People completed it for me. Ososa, here I come.
There I met artistes from all over the country. Each one was ready to prove reason for deserving a slot in the National Troupe. Rigorous exercises, unfamiliar food and environment did not deter me. For me, it was one more adventure. They opened the page where my name was written, being a member of the National Troupe of Nigeria.
Reading about Chief Hubert Ogunde and drinking directly from his wealth of experience was awesome. He was an embodiment of discipline, instantly acknowledges a talent when he sees one and encourages same. Lucky to be among the ones the late doyen of Nigerian Theatre chose as his ‘A’ list performers. He even told us the order we should bear his casket when he’ll be buried.
What do you miss most about the National Troupe?
What I miss more about the Troupe is the continuation of the ideals truncated by the appointment of Tar Ukoh, who in his bid to establish the Troupe in every local government area across the country, arbitrarily sacked the core artistes and began to do roadside shows in place of programmes the Troupe is known for. He spent four years retiring funds for destroying all the developments by his predecessors. I miss the plays, playreading, the dances, children theatre…
Tell us about your experience growing up?
I am a teacher’s son; my mother, a petty trader. I grew up in a large family setting with grandmothers, great grandmothers, fathers and many children. We enjoyed great story-telling nights, wrestling festivals, masquerade festivals, exciting aquatic activities; one of the benefits of being born on an island. We had no fear of insecurity; children went to school and returned. Clutching only an address on a piece of paper we travelled safely to and fro.
You are also a documentary photographer. Why photography and documentary?
I noticed that some people do not care about keeping records of events. After being tutored by the legendary Don Barber, I was equipped with the required knowledge to satisfy my fantasies and desire by freezing historical moments for reference. The bulk of my works are actually theatre based, landscape and weddings; situational portraits and more. This was at a time when some colleagues and friends would always ask, ‘Why are you taking photographs? Don’t you know that you are… Today they pay me to reproduce their history.
How have you been able to avoid scandals?
My upbringing was that which taught you to be humble, respect elders and the younger ones. Everyone has something that will be scandalous if and when made known to the public with intent to be seen in that light. I am disciplined enough to apologise, even when I am not wrong. Since I owe myself the duty and obligation not to be involved in anything that will bring me to disrepute or my family members, a dictum I take seriously, it will be difficult for me to be involved in any scandalous situation.
What is your advice for the young ones who want to make a career in acting?
For the young ones fascinated by stardom and in a blind hurry to be actors, I will advise, go through training. Make sure you are properly educated.
How do you unwind?
My friends and I will gather somewhere and ‘bend our elbows’. In that Sanctuary, we discuss freely, question others and are questioned, in a no holds barred manner. You learn a lot from that scenario. Going home with a free mind but taking cognizance of what your friends told you.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected you as a person and as an artiste?
The scourge, covid-19 has brought the world on its knees. In my business involving local and international performances, the presence of covid-19 has done a lot of harm. I miss that audience/ actor relationship while on stage.