Clowning Is Not Comedy —James Iroha

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For over two decades, James Iroha a.k.a. Gringory was the undisputed king of Nigerian comedy.

Through The Masquerade, a hit television drama which Iroha created, he wowed viewers across the country with his hilarious acting. Playing the role of a miserable domestic servant called Gregory (corrupted to Gringory), he was the archetype of the Nigerian domestic staff. But on Saturday 7 October, an interesting reversal of roles occurred at the Nigeria LNG Limited Grand Award Night for the Nigeria Prize, both for Science and Literature, held at the MUSON Centre in Lagos. Iroha, who opened the high profile event as guest of honour, was the best graduating student of the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan in 1966. And as a doyen of comedy, Iroha stepped on the stage and drew a sharp line between clowning and comedy, with his refreshing performance. Sylvester Asoya met him shortly before the event began

Q: Why is Gringory missing from the screen?

A: I retired in 2002 from the Broadcasting Corporation of Abia State as a Deputy Director-General. I am now living a very quiet life in Umuahia, Abia State.

Q: You are Guest of Honour tonight as NLNG hosts the grand award ceremony for the Nigeria Prize for Science and the Nigeria Prize for Literature. Generally, what are your views on the Arts?

A: You can kill everything except the arts, so we are all moving. All I have done is to hand over the baton and the race is still on. So, nothing will happen to the arts. We will continue moving.

Q: You played a prominent role as a pioneer in the comedy genre. What are your impressions today on comedy, given the fact that there seems to be an explosion in the field?

A: I don't know exactly what people are doing. But it seems that people don't understand the difference between a comedian and a clown. There is a great difference between those two things. And the sooner we draw a line between them so that people can know exactly what they are doing, the better for all of us. Sometimes, when these clowns make you laugh, they think they are comedians. But they are not.

Q: So what is this great difference between comedy and clowning?

A: A comedian makes you laugh sensibly. He leaves something with you, which you start thinking about when you get home. But with clowns, it is more of stupidity than anything else. You will laugh though, but you don't take anything home. They can actually make you laugh through what they say or their movements, but that does not make them comedians. Comedy provides you with a gift to take home which clowns don't give. I am sorry to say so, but that is the truth.

Q: The Masquerade was a phenomenal success for many years. What inspired it?

A: At the end of the Civil War in 1970, I thought there was something one could do because a lot of people lost relations and friends, and you could see that many people were unhappy as a result of that. So, I thought this could break the tension in the atmosphere. Secondly, I thought we could use drama to unify the country because at the end of the war, they said no victor, no vanquished. They said the war was fought basically to unite Nigeria. So, I thought of making my own contributions by creating a programme that would have Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and all that. That was why we had characters from various ethnic groups in Nigeria and it was very relevant until it was suddenly swept under the carpet for reasons best known to the powers that be.

Q: What challenges did you face in producing The Masquerade?

A: The challenges were really numerous. People sometimes saw what we did as skeletons in their cupboards, so they came fighting. Sometimes, we were arrested. Sometimes, they even told us what we didn't know about the programme, and we always thanked them for being a wonderful audience.

Q: You were the best graduating student of the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, in 1966. Could you recall your undergraduate days?

A: In Nigeria we always require an evidence called certificate. That is why people usually run to the universities. My mother was a successful comedian, so was my father. Though he was a disciplinarian, he was comic in his character. In any case, matching him with my mother was complete action for comedy because unless you are able to successfully match a subtle character and a hard character, you cannot get a good combination. So, I discovered in the university that my father was running a theatre, unknown to him. It was only when I gave it a dramatic form that I saw what my father was doing. That was how the name masquerade came about. I don't want you to ask me what masquerade means because as an African, we know that a masquerade has an unchallengeable authority. A masquerade can say anything to anybody, and nobody can take offence. And even when you take offence, you cannot go and arrest it because it is a spirit. That was what we were doing. It was a subtle vehicle for some serious information. However, I had good lecturers and fellow students in my university days and we were happy. Life in the university and learning to be a dramatist was quite great.

Q: As a Theatre Arts graduate, are you not bothered that stage performances are no longer attractive?

A: That is a development and there is nothing one can do. Films are all over the place. The stage was the beginning and other things are following. We also know that the stage will remain central because even Shakespeare said the whole world is a stage, with men and women playing their various roles. As we are talking, I can see some form of theatrical performance because people are watching us. The stage is alive; it's not completely dead.

Q: Would you have loved to do anything differently?

A: No, nothing else. Everybody on earth has his or her own destiny to pursue.

Q: Do you see hope for theatrical performances in the near future?

A: We really have to move on because I believe that theatre will not die in Nigeria. Those who taught us how to become dramatists – the Europeans – are still moving. Their theatre is alive and kicking. So, why should we stop? Is it because of home video? There is nothing home video can do because everything takes off from the stage. Whatever anybody is doing in film production originated from the stage. So, we have to return to the theatre.

Q: If you are to advise the government on these issues, what would you say?

A: They have to define what the theatre should be doing. Theatre, as we all know, is a wonderful experience. It has to be doing things for children, the youth, adults and in fact, for the old. I'm happy that we now have Nollywood, which I consider a wonderful idea. But they must have a clear vision of where they are going. I am saying that the time has come when we should begin to do our cultural documentaries so that we can preserve our culture.