Veteran award-winning Nigerian actress and director, Joke Silva, in this interview, talks about her career, marriage and other issues. TONY OKUYEME met her
How has the journey been so far? It started really with my grandfather, Bishop Elsie Phillips, otherwise known as the Bishop of Ondo, although he was bishop in several churches in Lagos. Then he was living in Osgogbo; but he used to come to Lagos and spend time with us. And he used to tell us stories, and I will be the only one who was around, and probably my relatives. He would teach me the songs, we would sing them together, and sometimes he would want me to dance to the stories. So, I would dress up in some kind of dance attires, creating the costumes from my own clothes. I got my love of performance from there.
What happened thereafter?
I would just get my friends together, especially when my parents had guests, and we would do a performance for my mother’s guests. Also, in my final year in primary school, we had this end of year play, and it was the ‘Merry Present’ – sometimes called ‘The Stranger’ – a musical; and I played the lead character. Then, at home, I would wake up early in the morning, and sometimes late at night, and I would be learning my lines, rehearsing.
So, my mum got rather worried and she went to the teacher in charge of drama, and said to her, ‘look, I really would like to pull Joke out of this because instead of sleeping, she would be rehearsing, going over songs late at night’. And the teacher said to her: ‘Dr. Silva, this is one thing Joke does very well and she enjoys it. Just leave her’.
And so they did. I continued in Holy Child School, Ikoyi, Lagos. I was the drama prefect. I also got a drama prize. Then, several years after, I went to England.
When I started going to the school, I was taking drama classes, which was part of extracurricular activities in the school. I took part in so many festivals all around England at the time with other school members. Some of them, I was a solo, some of them with other people; and we always did very well. For my gold, I now prayed, because when Lola Fani-Kayode – we grew up as childhood friends and she had gone to school in the United States – was in school in Wales, she had won the best student in England for that year in her gold medal exam.
So, I now said a prayer to the Lord, and said: ‘Lord, if this drama is what You want me to do, I also want to get the best score in the whole of England for that year; and that at least if I get that I would know that this is the profession that You want for me.’ So, I said the prayer; and the night before the exam, I just woke up; I had prepared a piece ‘Rumour’ from Henry IV Part 2, by William Shakespeare; and I had worked with my tutor on that piece, only to wake up that night after praying. And there were some things I saw in my dream about that piece.
So, I went downstairs to the common room and rehearsed what I saw in my dream; and then went back to bed. Later, I went for my exam.
My teacher sat down with the examiner, and I could see that she was surprised when she saw my presentation. After the exam, I felt so exhilarated, and all that. And we had Chemistry or so, but I couldn’t go back to class.
Then, a couple of days later, I was called by the headmistress, and she told: ‘Joke, you have done the school very proud, and that you have done very well; and you have got gold medal honours, but not only did you get honours, you have gotten the best score in England for this year.’
I danced and danced. When I finished my A Levels, I came back to Nigeria with the hope of getting into the University of Ibadan to study Theatre Arts, unfortunately I was late.
My parents felt I should take a year out and see whether I could do well in this field that I am interested in.
You also honed your skill at the Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Lagos. Can you share your experience?
An uncle of mine was working in the University of Lagos at the time, the late Mr. Olumide.
So, he connected me to the University of Lagos Centre for Cultural Studies at that time. And it was such fun… People like Segun Ojewuyi and Tunji Sotimirin were there.
I was involved in several of Bode Osayin’s plays; and it was from there that somebody saw a performance that we did at the Goethe Institute at the time; and I was invited to come and take part in some television drama series.
You know, at that time, most of the people who were working on television had day jobs – 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs – so we could only record at night.
That was how I got to meet the late Tony St’ Iyke, Collins Onomo, Kunle Bamtefa, there were so many of them and they were pretty established. They all treated me like their little sister.
Talking about, marriage, how has it been?
When I got back home after going to drama school, and he also wanted to come back home, even before I left home, we had started dating. We dated for about five years, and it was in 1985 we got married.
And for my parents, it was like they really hadn’t seen me so serious with anybody.
And it’s been an interesting journey.
There is a 19-year gap between us; and in hindsight, I probably wasn’t mature enough to get married at the time, but I wanted to, and I did. We kind of made it; we had our challenges along the way, but we have come to really good place.
So, you then realise that it has been worth it.
I mean, one is not saying that it has been so rosy; there a lot of happy moments and so on, and I guess, really, it is because we are good friends. That has kept us; and also learning through the journey to respect each other’s views, wanting the best for each other.
I think, sometimes, one of the challenges that we face in this culture is that we put a lot of pressure on both sides; there are a lot of expectations put on both sides that can be a bit false, such as the woman is supposed to be like this; the man is supposed to be like that, and so on. Has it been easy? No, it hasn’t been easy. But has it been worth it? Definitely, it has been worth it.
How would you describe your husband?
He is a very interesting personality. Before we got married, I saw him as somebody who was incredibly funny, extremely principled. Things were clear cut for him; he didn’t believe in any wishy-washy kind of thing. He was very clear-cut about some things – this is right and this is wrong, this was respectful, this was respectful and so on.
He totally loves his profession; he has a lot of respect for it. From way back then, he had always believed that he can take Nigeria to the zenith; and he has always be- lieved that the entertainment industry was really the answer for Nigeria.
He adores his children; he really adores them. Also, he is somebody who likes to stay around in the kitchen with you; he is not really into sitting down, crossing his legs and leaving you in the kitchen to do whatever. I think he was used to getting things done himself as a bachelor. He has a great sense of humour, and he can be extremely bad-tempered or short-tempered. But on the whole, he is like a gentle, tender teddy bear, nice grandpa.
There have been several incidents of failed marriages in the industry. What is your advice?
There are a lot of challenges that are being faced by artistes of this particular generation; and one of those challenges is the social media, which almost doesn’t allow you your life. People of my age, when we were getting all the attention, and we were feeling like we were the best thing, things were different. You need all the attention anyway. For your work to sell, you need that popularity. It goes with the job, so you need that popularity. But after a while, you also get to learn that it can be a doubleedge sword.
So, it is about managing it, appreciating the audience for appreciating your work, but also giving yourself that limit to what aspect of you they can experience.
In this age of reality shows where nothing seems to be off limit, the new skill that the entertainer has to learn is how much do you give your audience? More so, because you don’t want to be false; like used to happen in the early years of Hollywood where they would create this incredible image, and then it was almost impossible for the performer to live under that image; and a lot of them used to use all kinds of medications just to fit a particular image that was being built around them. Now, we are in the age of social media, so it is learning how to cope with social media, to do the work that social media does, which is to get your work out there, to get your face out there. But then limit that too so that you do have a life; so that you can have some modicum of emotional privacy.
Those are the challenges that I know that the younger generation face. Another thing that I do say, though, is that it is because the younger generation are very popular because of social media, and so, whatever happens to them becomes news; forgetting that there are as many divorces, there as many separations in other professions such as medical, financial, legal among others. Name any profession; there are so many separations in those as well.
When two people come from, sometimes different backgrounds – and it is most times from different backgrounds – and whether you come from the same social strata or not, you are brought up by two totally different people with values that are slightly different from the way you were brought up. So, smoothening out the relationship takes a while. I think, if one has patience, it will go a long way to help.
But at the same time, it will also help if one has older people, mentors, whose examples you can follow, who are your willing ears, and good friends. I never believed in all this rubbish where they say that because you are married now you should stop having friends.
I don’t believe in that. Your friends are a part of who you are. Why do you have to let go of all your friends simply because you are getting married. If the friend is not good or is toxic, then get rid of that friendship. But if it is a good friendship, then please, just because you are married doesn’t mean that that friendship should end. On both sides, let their friends now bring in this new person and expand your friends circle. I think that is important too.