Francis Kanebi Onwochei: Right icing on his career cake
Notable thespian, Francis Kanebi Onwochei, may have received a number of industry awards since he started out as an entertainer about 30 years ago, but he certainly got the mother of all recognitions and awards last week when he was decorated as a Fellow of Theatre Arts (FTA) by the Tunde Obalana-led National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP).
The prestigious NANTAP Fellowship is the highest award and rank of the practice and awarded to devotees of the theatre profession in recognition of their service and contribution to theatre practice.
What this means is that the Ubulu-Uku, Aniocha Delta State-born actor, producer and director, who is unarguably devoted to the arts, would from last Saturday add ‘FTA’ after his name and will be addressed henceforth.
Frankochei, as he is called by close friends and colleagues, would also be accorded every privilege and respect meant for a Fellow at every gathering of the tribe.
An elated Onwochei took to his Facebook page shortly after his investiture and wrote: “Receiving an award holds a special feeling. Now, when it comes from your professional colleagues and co-travellers in theatre, the feeling becomes more intriguing.
“I am thankful to my professional association NANTAP for the honour. I am very thankful and surely will wear it with honour and pride.
“It is a time of rejoicing.”
Onwochei also shared pictures of his wife and children, who attended the investiture ceremony, and other recipients of the Fellowship, including pictures with him and the dance merchant, Arnold Udoka, current Chairman of the Lagos State chapter of NANTAP, Makinde Adeniran, O’s Deji Etiwe, former secretary general of NANTAP, Charles Ukpong, and long-standing thespian, Nifemi Richard Bruce.
Born and raised in Lagos, Onwochei’s dream of playing professional football was truncated when he could not make the U-17 Golden Eaglet team that represented Nigeria in China in 1985.
“I stopped playing football when I could not make the team that went to China. That was when I said I was through with football and faced theatre,” he explained.
From the pitch, Onwochei got on stage and in no time, he hugged limelight thereafter an engaging performance in Femi Osofisan’s Once Upon Four Robbers, directed by Bassey Effiong.
“We performed the play at the National Arts Theatre in Lagos in memory of the late Gen. Murtala Mohammed, and it was well received.
“That was my professional debut. But before then, I had been involved in play performance in secondary schools here and there,” he recalled.
A stage and screen actor and one of the very few well groomed theatre artiste that embraced home video production as a result of the near lack of stage productions in the early 90s, Onwochei took to the business of make believe in the early 80s when there was what he termed a “compulsory marriage between the professionals and non-professionals.”
The fourth child in a family of seven, who at a time worked as a staff of the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing, what Onwochei has going for him, as he alluded, is the thorough theatre training he received under notable theatre and film directors, like Bayo Oduneye, Bassey Effiong and Tade Ogidan.
Respected among his peers for his strict adherence to work and professional ethics, Onwochei joined the famous Anansa Playhouse, a private theatre company that was reputed for its consistency in the production of stage plays at the National Theatre in the 80s.
As a member of Anansa, Onwochei, an alumnus of the Federal School of Surveying, Oyo took part in a number of plays staged by the group, including Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame and Bassey Effiong’s adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
From Anansa, Onwochei worked with the reverred stage director and former artistic director of the National Troupe, Bayo Oduneye, on a number of productions, including Peter Luke’s Hadrian the Seventh.
That production turned out the big break for Onwochei, who later pitched tent with the Chuck Mike-led Collective Artiste and was in every stage production by that collective as long as he was there, needed.
In between, he picked up roles with other production outfits and performed severally with the National Troupe.
With infrequent stage productions, Onwochei and his peers took their art straight on to television and much later, the home video turf.
He made his debut on television on the long-rested soap, Legacy.
He later joined the cast of Zeb Ejior’s Ripples and was subsequently invited to join the cast of Amaka Igwe’s Checkmate.
A core Nollywood practitioner who has extensively worked as an actor, director and producer, Onwochei’s first shot on the home video turf was in the Igbo language movie, Circle of Doom. He followed it up with a number of other productions and was later to join the league of producers.
An alumnus of the London International Film School and the DW Television Training Center Berlin, Germany, Onwochei, who has attended and facilitated film courses in South Africa, France, United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), runs Frankochei Productions Limited, a firm he has led to produce award winning flicks, including Claws of the Lion and Raging Storm.
Married to Susan, mother of his four children, Onwochei confessed that he has remained focused on his career because of his union with Susan.
In fact, he credits her for being “behind, beside, in front and at the back of the successful Onwochei,” adding: “The best decision I have ever taken in life is the decision to marry my darling wife in 1995, after our chance meeting at a business centre in 1993.
“It has been good. I give God the glory for keeping us together. I am really thankful to God that my marriage is intact and is blessed with those wonderful children.”
His ambition is to continue to be the best in his chosen career and to continue to devote his time and resources to the advancement of professional theatre and screen practice.
“I want to live a life dedicated to complete professional theatre and screen practice, and I want to devote more of my time to advocacy, mentoring young people and building capacities.
“I also want to serve humanity and society in whatever capacity,” he said.