Hafiz Oyetoro… The Actor In Whom We Are Well Pleased
MONDAY evening, after a long class, Hafiz Oyetoro is in the practical theatre of the Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education (AOCOED), Ijanikin, Lagos, for a workshop ensemble. The students have swapped their clothes for sweat pants and rehearsal gears. The air reverberates with staccato of noise from excited students as they sink in the ensemble spirit; this reporter engages the teacher, who is observing the students.
Here’s a thing you may be surprised to learn about the theatre teacher and actor, he’s a rather shy person. He actually spent the four years of his degree programme in the Dramatic Arts Department of University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) undergoing speech therapy.
But that’s not torture, he confesses. “I had lecturers, who worked on me, especially, Mr. Chuck Mike. He took me as his younger brother and also introduced me to the late Mrs. Ajose Ajayi, a speech therapist in the Theatre Arts Department of University of Ibadan.”
No one ever get bored in his front. He is the kind of actor, who reels jokes, upon jokes without even bating an eye. He breathes and thunders in jokes. But there’s a level he takes this, especially, with his students. You ask him where his insatiable appetite to dabble in everything comes from. “I was going to Ibadan every Saturday throughout my undergraduate years for speech therapy. She did a lot of work on me, and was treating me like her own son, and so, by the time I started practising, I didn’t find it difficult to transit from one character to the other. As an actor, you must be able to interpret different roles, and also, differentiate your characters from your person,” Oyetoro says.
Oyetoro has made a reputation for himself through his active skill. Humour, sensitivity, commitment and religion: an amazing cocktail, which makes the theatre teacher a character to be with.
In Ibadan, he was popularly known as Adoola, and later metamorphosed to Baba Kafayat, when he came to Lagos, a pseudonym that has been supplanted by Saka. You wonder how he has maintained the transition.
“Adoola was a stage name as a student, and when I became a professional, Saka came in. And as an actor, I need to play roles,” he squawks.
I had lecturers, who worked on me, especially, Mr. Chuck Mike. He took me as his younger brother and also introduced me to the late Mrs. Ajose Ajayi, a speech therapist in the Theatre Arts Department of University of Ibadan.
After Oyetoro completed his master’s degree programme at the University of Ibadan, he joined Laffomania, a theatre group in Ibadan, as a resident artiste. After some years, he moved to Lagos to continue with his practice. It was in that process that, through Gbenga Windapo, a bosom friend and comrade–in-art, that he got a role in the now rested NTA programme, One big family.
“I got another in Area C, also a national programme. Later, I got a job here in Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education (AOCOED), Ijanikin, as a lecturer in 2001, and in 2003, I got married finally at age 40. While I was shuttling between Ibadan and Lagos, there was a particular TV idea Windapo and I had. We shared it with Gregory Muyiwa Odutayo, managing director of Royal Roots Communications, titled, House Apart. We worked on it together, and it came out as a comedy series on TV. I played ‘Saka’ and Windapo played ‘Sule’; the first 26 episodes were shot and aired, it became a very popular comedy, and so, it is normal that the cast will be popular too and that was how Saka got his popularity. It was also in the process Opa Williams invited Windapo and I to write a Yoruba serial called, Abelejayan, which was his idea solely, we only wrote the script,” he says.
HE grew up in Adegbola, a farm settlement in Iseyin, Oyo State. He started his primary school at Baptists Day School, Iseyin. His secondary education was at the Community Grammar School, Iseyin. “I did my master’s at the University of Ibadan (UI) and I’m currently pursuing my PhD programme at the Institute of African Studies, majoring in Performance Studies,” he says of his non-stop running engine.
As a growing child, back in Adegbola, he had a strange habit — watching planes fly pass. He would watch endlessly as the plane would veer off sight, and so, he asked his father one day on the farm what that was, and he said, ‘balu’, (the Yoruba word for plane), and as it comes down, it gets bigger. “I told myself, if people are up in that thing as my father had said, then one day I would be in it. Later, something told me, why not be the driver instead of the passenger, and I told myself that by the grace of God, I would be a driver of the airplane,” Oyetoro reveals.
It is a disarming admission from someone, who makes whoever he meets laugh. “I didn’t know that they were called pilots. By the time I started school, I discovered I was more channeled to the arts, my teachers always had me partake in end-of-the-year parties and drama productions. When I got into secondary school, I became a very strong member of the dramatic society and immediately after my secondary education, I joined ‘Akewebedi’ Theatre Group in my locality and I was doing well before I started my university education, and so, all these shaped me to choosing theatre.”
He reveals, “I like physics and geography; because I wanted to be a pilot, but after I visited St. Andrews College, Oyo State, and I entered their laboratory; it was then I discovered we had an empty laboratory in my school, so, I concluded science was not good enough for me since the facilities were not there.”
His energy on stage is a revenge for a career that he has not taken up. He went into theatre to conquer his inability.
So, what was your major break in theatre? He said it depends on how you look at it; but agrees that his days in the University of Ibadan, as a master’s degree student played a major role. “Most of the things I have today were generated from those days of my life.”
He adds, “professional theatre practice is like building a house, when you clear the bushes, lay the foundation and get to roofing, the moment you put the last brush of painting, then everybody comes out and notices the new house. So, I would say that those years of my life in Ibadan, where I was doing my one-man show, were the major break that opened the door in my career. However, with all the trainings and practices, by the time I got to Lagos, it was not so difficult to get to limelight.”
Sex-capaids, where he played ‘Adoola’, actually it is ‘Doola’, still strikes him most, because of the character played. Everyone was besotted with his role that was a nuisance, so, people now called him ‘Adoola’. In fact, with Adoola, another star was born in Ibadan.
Though, Oyetoro is passionate about comedy, he has devised a way of avoiding being a type-character. He shuns scripts that only limit him to comedy. “I am a theatre practitioner, and can play as many roles as possible, but in Nigeria, when a director sees you playing a particular role, he wants you to remain there, and that is why I am conscious of it, otherwise, one will be stuck. Before my office got burnt, I had a lot of scripts that I diplomatically rejected, because they were all the same thing,” he explains.
Oyetoro, who is the head of his department, could rest on his laurels. But not him, he has not exhausted the pleasure of make belief world. His next project is Weewe. He said of the plans to actualise the project. “It is an idea of Gbenga Windapo and I. The story runs through UK, US and Nigeria. We have been on it for almost a year now. We have been able to do the UK, we planned to do the US, last year, unfortunately, we couldn’t, because of logistics and we intend to shoot it by the first quarter of this year and get it on air.”
He admits, instructively, acting has been rewarding: “Psychologically, I am satisfied, financially, though, I am not a billionaire; I have been able to pay my bills, my children attend the school I want them to attend, when I get home, I eat what I want to eat.”
The theatre teacher adds, “I thank God for the fulfillment. Today, when I go to my home town, Iseyin, at least 90 per cent of the people are proud to be associated with me, and I am proud to be from there. I want to be a medium of value to the lives of people.”
Having tasted recognition, is he tempted to stray away? May be, miss wife’s food or hug, perhaps, doting the children? He draws a long laugh, almost sneering. “Me? No, no,” Hafiz Oyetoro tells you in a voice that is soft and steady. “I’m an average Nigerian with a reserved attitude to life. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t run after women. God has given me the grace to marry someone who shares my vision. I am a simple, reserved person, who believes in humility.”
SAKA and Hafis are two different people, he tells you. He continues, “though, as a theatre person, you don’t want your class to be boring, and so, once in a while, you try to make it lively. But then, my students can tell when Saka is standing in front of them, and when the lecturer is in class. I teach acting; directing, creative acting and I also teach fundamentals of music and dance within the context of arts.”
According to him, “when I am in the class, I relate to my students as their lecturer, and when I am at home, I relate as husband and father. As a matter of fact, my children and wife, including myself, watch Saka on TV; my children differentiate Saka from daddy. I want to thank God for that, it is a grace, once I leave the theatre or office, and get home, I automatically become a father and husband.”
The theatre teacher says, “when I have been away for a long time, I unwind with my children; I take them out, organise dance competitions and I crack jokes. I relate with my children very closely, they are my friends and I thank God for that, unlike my background, I was brought up under very strict social control, I was a loner and by the time I got to Ife, I had to do speech therapy and special courses in psychology, before I started as an actor. So, I don’t want that for my children.”
One of his students, Adeola Adebanjo, says, “he is a very good person. Beyond being a lecturer, he is one individual that you can easily run to for assistance when there is problem.”
The lady continues, “the first time I saw him, I was star struck. I didn’t believe the person I used to see in films was going to teach me. But from when he started teaching me, I saw other qualities in him that have impacted on me.”
Another student of his, Conscience Ikuefe, says, “it’s being a wonderful experience knowing him. Theoretically and practically, he has impacted on me.”
For Omobolanle Akinfenwa, “the good thing about the man is that he does not get himself involved in any scandal. He is straightforward and always wants the best for you.”
How often does he allow Saka to teach?
She laughs. “Saka is not the teacher, but Mr. Oyetoro, a humble and down to earth person.”The final year student says, “when I was first told that the man who did ‘I don pot’ was going to be my lecturer, I was skeptical. I didn’t know how I was going to cope with his academic demands, but thank God, he showed me that with hardwork, the sky is the beginning, not the ceiling.”Akinfenwa adds, “one word I will ever take from him is ‘do everything effectively, you don’t know who is watching’.”
What is his take on Nollywood?
“It is improving. In the next 20 years, we will capture the world. Although, we have challenges, if an average Nigerian director has the privilege an American director has, he will beat the whole world. We have challenges in the industry, no funds, facilities or resources and even with that we are moving. When it takes an American director years to do a film, an average Yoruba director will do it in one week. Our technical quality is improving, but our content is still suspect, unlike those days when it was philosophical with great story line. I think the consciousness is coming back with the likes of Tunde Kelani and Kunle Afoyalan, who are helping to drive the industry to where it should be,” he remarks.
On his penchant for African prints, he has this to say: “My background. I spent the most part of my life in the village. Once in a while, I wear English dresses, but not suits. However, I just believe that I am not dressing to please people, but to suit my person and be comfortable. I don’t like pretence; I believe that the best person I can be is, me. I only wear English dresses, where it is absolutely necessary for me to wear. If I play on stage, I am not playing myself, and so, the only time I can maintain me, is to wear my African prints”.
What is his most cherished possession? “God’s grace, that is the best thing that ever happened to me; so many people have died, and so many have not had fulfilled dreams, but here I am, married for over 12 years, have the number of children I want, I don’t have a broken home and I have not been hospitalised or bedridden,” he says.