Arts & Entertainments

I’d always wanted to be an artiste –Benjamin

Miss Olushola Kunmi Benjamin is not just one of your usual artistes in the Nigerian theatre landscape, but she is a versatile, multi-talented artiste, who has carved a niche for herself as an actress, singer, dancer and chanter. She holds a Diploma in Theatre Arts from University of Port Harcourt, River State.

A foundation member of Performance Studio Workshop (PSW), a training and performance laboratory and institute in Lagos, between 1990 and 1993, Benjamin rose through the ranks from an artiste in training to an artiste in residence performing in many of the original plays produced during that period. Apart from her seminal role as an actor, Benjamin learnt and participated in several aspects of the performing arts.

She is adept at improvisation, singing, music, drumming, and dancing. Her versatility in dance is not limited to traditional dances only but cuts across playing and teaching traditional African drumming, including Bata and Dundun, as well as Omele Bata (Omele Meta) drums, an area dominated mostly by men. Significantly, her knowledge of music and dance cuts across Nigeria and West Africa, such as Gelede, Bolojo (Yoruba) Ohogoho (Benin), Owigiri (Ijaw), and Ugho (Edo) has earned her respect and commendation. Her journey into the world of arts is the result of passion and commitment. According to her, she had always wanted to be an artiste.

“When I was growing up as a child, I was always the one in the house that makes jokes and everyone would laugh. I was always the one that when watching television I try to follow what they are doing on television, and thereafter, repeat what they were saying. “I remember one time when in secondary school, we had a social day and we were told to do a presentation. I remembered that I tried to sing a song by Steve Wonder. Also, I went home and picked up a copy of “Efunsetan Aniwura,” came back to school so that my fellow students would watch and then we could do a presentation of it.

‘‘My cousin was at the University of Port Harcourt at the time studying Theatre Arts. So, I would go every time to watch their rehearsals, and live performances. So this really got me so close to the arts, and I would always want to be an actor any time any day.

“The reason is because I found out that when I am doing all of those things it gives me a free mind, it makes me smile, and makes me happy. I just jump all around. And that’s why I went to the University of Port Harcourt to study Theatre Arts.”

Her experience so far, she says has been good saying: ‘‘Being an artiste gives you the room to make o t h e r people h a p -py. And I am glad that when I perform I make people smile, I make people laugh. Even though at the time that we started to do the work there was not a lot of money involved, but the joy of being able to make other people smile sometimes is enough for me to say yes, I have achieved something today.” She recalls with nostalgia that when she came out of the university she joined Performance Studios Workshop (PSW), which was run by Mr. Chuck Mike and Prof. Wole Soyinka. The experience, she added, helped her a lot as an artiste. “I think we did a play with Prof. Soyinka, which was called ‘Sisi Clara Workshop,’ and we did so many with Chuck Mike as well because it was always like a workshop.

But I wouldn’t say that there a particular play that brought me to the limelight. ‘‘I would say that every play that we did a l w a y s brought us out a n d showed the public how interesting and how good we are. Maybe, I would also say that a particular one called “Ikpiko” (later called “Sense of Belonging” in the UK).

The play had to do with female genital mutilation, and it was something that brought out something in me. I know a lot of people talked about it after the performance.” Benjamin believes strongly that live theatre is actually what makes you a Thespian, “because when you say something on stage you can’t go back. No, cut, take it again. It really keeps your radar going; you must know it, you must be focused to do live theatre. And in the process of trying to be an actor, I also learnt how to drum and how to dance, especially the ‘origiri’ dance, because I schooled in Port Harcourt.

‘‘I thank Columbus Irosanga and late Amatu Braid for making sure that I was able to do the steps, drumming, singing, dancing and chanting as well. When you are doing live theatre they challenge your capacity and you have to deliver. Because of that I have been able to concentrate also on drumming, dancing, chanting and singing.

So, live theatre gives you opportunity to do different things: It gives you an opportunity to drum; it gives you an opportunity to dance. And I took up the challenge. ‘‘I can say that if you challenge me in drumming, I will deliver; challenge me in chanting, I will deliver; challenge me in dance, I will deliver, and singing too.” So, how did she learn how to chant? “I would say that the chanting is inbuilt because I took that up from my grandmother when I was growing up,” she enthused.

 

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