I was used and dumped– Dejumo Lewis, Oloja in Village Headmaster
Lovers of television drama in the 70's through the 80's and early 90's would remember Dejumo Lewis, the passionate Oloja of Oja, the king of the fictional village in the longest running TV Soap in Nigeria, The Village Headmaster.
Lewis, actor and producer, who for three decades, bestrode Nigeria's TV entertainment like a collusus; putting smiles on people's faces as a traditional ruler and custodian of his people's culture, may have experienced a reversal of that role having dropped his toga as Oloja of Oja since the soap was rested many years back.
But then, what makes Dejumo's case ironic is that three of his subjects have been made kings of their respective communities, while he (Dejumo) lost his throne and priviledges as a royal father.
Worse still, at 63, Lewis, who exuded much grandeur and majesty in a palace swarming with servants and attendants has no personal building, how much more a palace. In the last seven years, the former Oloja has been living in a guest house in Lagos.
Lewis, who says that he was unceremoniously sacked from NTA seven years ago is, today, a bitter man, who feels he has been betrayed and dumped by a country he gave so much to. In this interview, the famous Oloja, reflects on the injustice he suffered at NTA, his days in Village Headmaster, Nollywood, and how he almost ended up as a Catholic priest.
I was born on Lagos Island. I grew up in my grandfather's estate at Epetedo area of Lagos. Later, I went to stay at my maternal grandfather's house at Lafiaji. There, I started my primary education at Holy Cross Catholic School, Lagos. Early enough, I had an inkling of what I wanted to be in the future; a Catholic priest. So, I decided to go to St. Theresa Minor Seminary in Okinare for my secondary education and after that, I proceeded to the major seminary. I completed the Philosophy course and I was doing the Theology and somewhere along the line, I had to call it quit. I became discouraged with the priesthood and the austere life of Catholic priests.
Coming into acting
Professionally, I must say that I started acting immediately I left the seminary; but I grew up acting. I can still recollect clearly I was always singing round the compound where I grew up. As a growing child, I would always re-enact the Catholic Mass at home. When I was in the primary school, I acted in all the plays produced by the school. I was also in the school choir and by extension the church choir. When I got to the minor seminary, I was a foudation member of the the dramatic society.
In the major seminary, I continued to be active. During my probation period at Ijebu-Igbo, I produced a series of plays for the school; the church and for the secular society. As soon as I left the seminary, I thought of going into broadcasting, but somehow I met a friend who took me, for the first time, to Circle Theatre. From that point, the rest is now history.
I left the major seminary in 1968 and within a short, while in the same year, I joined what one may describe as a quasi-professional performing company called, Circle Theatre Interestingly, the head of the company was one Engineer Odunlami. I have lost contact with him for long. I don't know where he is today but I would say that it was he that introduced me to professional acting .The company was known for producing Shakespearean plays. We were going round school from Lagos to Abeokuta, down to Ibadan to stage plays, essentially to aid students in understanding Shakespearean drama better.
I think it was on the first Sunday of October, 1968,I was watching Village Headmaster on television and it turned out to be the first episode of the tele-drama. and I said to myself this is where I should belong. Impressed by the local content of the drama, the following morning, I headed for Victoria Island, to see the producer who is the present Olowu of Owu in Egba kingdom, Oba Sanya Dosunmu. He auditioned me and told me to join the rehearsals in the evening. Then, they used to hold their rehearsals somewhere around Campbell Street. I joined them there on that day. Initially, I was given small roles to play.
I was not given a big role from day-one. For me, it is the so-called minor role that helps a play take proper shape. The so-called major character's performance cannot make a production worth its salt without the input of the minor characters. That is why I strongly believe that there is no such thing as a minor role in a play. An actor that rejects a role on the grounds that it is small, is perhaps a small actor. A good actor plays a small role in a big way and steals the show from the so-called big roles.
How I became Oloja
It was one of those glorious days. David Oriere and another artiste, now Oba Segun Akinbola, the Oba of Alade-Idanre, Ondo State were assistants to the producer. On that particular day, David was in charge of the rehearsals. Suddenly, he asked 'who is this gentleman playing the role of the General in Look Back in Anger. I came out and he gave me a script to read for the role of Kabiyesi. Before I started putting up the actions, he had expressed his satisfaction with my reading. By the time the producer showed up for the final casting, he was also impressed with my delivery and immediately, he gave his approval. That was how I came about the role of the Oloja.
The making of Oloja
I did not dethrone anybody to become the Kabiyesi because there was no Oloja in the play before the character was contrived. Although, his original title, Oba Ajelende II, the month was meant to give his character a kind of clout that shows continuity. Initially, he was not a full-fledged monarch, he was only a Baale ( a village chief) of Oja. Somehow, at that time, the emphasis of the play was shared between the headmaster and the Kabiyesi's palace.
The writers were so much at home with the traditional African institutions to the extent that, initially, the Kabiyesi was meant to show up only when there is a celebration in the town.When the emphasis of the play shifted swiftly from the school compound to Kabiyesi's palace, people raised eyebrows, but they forgot that it is within culture that real education, religion ,music and technology are imbedded. The truth of the matter is that, as Africans, we've got to return to our culture.
How I became Oloja at 25
I came to discover that playing that role endeared me to many people; most especially, other members of the cast and crew. Initially, people could hardly recognize me as the Oloja except the people who knew me way back in school. I was 25 years old, playing the role of a man whose age was put at 65.
Sometimes, I would be in the bar and people would be discussing about Kabiyesi and his subjects oblivious of my identity .The way they discussed the characters was beyond the way the actors saw the whole thing. It was as if their lives depended on it.
To the people, the play was everything. You can imagine how empty the street of Lagos becomes on Sunday nights when Village Headmaster was being aired. Then few people had television sets, but people were much more accommodating than now. So, people trooped to wherever there was a TV set to watch the programme. It was a great privilege for us to know that the small effort we were making was having such an impact on the society.
A united team
Those of us that made up the production had no option than to become close-knitted group because we spent almost all our days together. We would meet for three times in a week for the rehearsals. It got to a point that the rehearsal venues and the place of recording venue became the only place where we socialize. It was interesting and we were like a family and we all felt fulfilled because we were doing something that was socially relevant and people loved and appreciated it.
Fire brigade approach
I cannot recall a time when we improvised without a script in Village Headmaster. The worst that could happen was for the script to arrive late, but it was compulsory that we shoot the episode with a script.
We usually record during the week, but often we record the coming episode on Sundays. I remember one particular day when the producer brought in some friends from BBC.
Strangely, that day was a Sunday and there was no episode ready for airing that Sunday . So, by 12:noon when most of us returned from our church services, we were accosted with a script that we were seeing for the first time. We had just few hours to memorise the lines, get into character, rehearse and shoot an episode that must be aired that same evening by 8:00pm.
To our friends from the BBC when we had the our dry rehearsals, followed by camera rehearsal and we retired for the brake,the rehearsals were like a surprise to them. So, when the producer asked everybody get on set, for a live show they could not believe it. Because the show was being transmitted live, the visistor started saying that we were magicians.