‘Zebrudaya Killed Masquerade’........James Iroha
— James Iroha, creator of the popular television series Masquuerade, and also acted the part of Gringory.
James Iroha is one name that routinely put laughter in the mouths of Nigerians in the 70's and early 80's. Masquerade, a drama comedy he created and acted the role of Gringory, Chief Zebrudaya's house boy, had glued NTA viewers to their seats and made them laugh away their sorrows. He was also there at the early stages of Nollywood and acted in such films as Nneka the Pretty Serpent, among others. His contribution to the entertainment industry has earned him praise and laurels, including the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger, OON, given to him by former President Shehu Shagari. He retired as acting Director-General of the Broadcasting Corporation of Abia State, (BCA).
The Source was with him recently, at his World Bank Estate residence in Umuahia, the Abia State capital, where he talked of his life, his acting, his fight to reclaim his intellectual property from the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), and his quarrel with Chika Okpala, (Chief Zebrudaya). Excerpts.
In the Nigerian entertainment industry, the name James Iroha rings bell. It is also a big name in the mass media industry. But now you have retired from both. Could you tell us how you are enjoying your retirement?
Well, retirement as they say is for you to go and have some rest, having done a good job. They retire you for you to sit down and take more time. But I strongly believe that no man requires rest unless he is dead, particularly if he is in the field of art. For instance, I have acted the part of a child, part of a youth, part of a grown man, and now that I am aging, I still do some acting. About two or three weeks ago, I acted with Wale Adenuga Productions in Papa Ajasco. I hear it was very interesting, though I didn't see it. People have phoned to say it was a superb production. So you need to continue acting, continue performing, until the ground is wet under your feet. Otherwise, you see I can't sit down having worked so hard... well, not by my own assessment but by what the people say; I have done so well. You see, in the art industry, if people say you are doing well, you give them more. If they say you are not doing well, you either make a change or drop. So, since the people still like what I am doing, I will not sit down and give up pleasing them. I will give them more.
You created one of the best comedy series in Nigeria, Masquerade, which later became New Masquerade. People still miss it. How did you come about the Masquerade?
Well, my mother happened to be a comedian, which fact people do not know about. But the idea of comedy came into my head immediately after the civil war in Nigeria. I looked at people and there were still emotional disturbances and grudges everywhere, and I thought that something had to be done. In the African context of the world, we appreciate humour. Being a natural comedian myself. I thought of what we could do to douse the tension in the people's mind. That is exactly what gave birth to the Masquerade. First, it was part of a radio programme, In the Lighter Mood, presented by Bob Nwangoro. Then I bet him that we were going to make that part of the programme, the adventures of Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo, alias 4:30.
So you went on to create the Masquerade?
That was how the Masquerade came about.
Art is often mimetic. You tell your experience and garnish it with artistic creation. Is it the same with Masquerade. What are the sources of the characters in Masquerade?
If you tear the texture of Masquerade apart, you will see my father as Chief Zebrudaya; my mother as Ovuleria. Jegede and the other friends of Zebrudaya are my father's old friends. When they sit down in the evening to play asigo – a traditional Igbo game, they dished out these wonderful language that, though it did not agree with the conventional grammar, communicated. My father was just lampooning and admonishing and dishing out this language. But he was making his point. Like he would say to my mother: “Why do you pontolise my body with assault?” What is “pontolise” I don't know. But it was understood. So any time my mother and father quarreled, people would gather to listen to them, and they would laugh and laugh. So I thought that could work in Masquerade and so I created Zebrudaya in my father's image, Ovuleria became my mother and Jegede, Okoro Maduekwe, Nati and others, my father's friends.
Your father must be a very interesting character?
Yes, he was. And likeable too, because he was easy-going and trusting. He had a man called Etudo as his house keeper. He was a native of Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom State. It was he who took care of all of us – my siblings and I. The man was very kind to us, very honest and very assiduous. If you did not pass your exam very well, he would not allow you to go back to school, my father gave him money to pay our school fees. So he was indeed in charge. For instance, I remember when my sister got credits in all her subjects, he refused to accept the result. He scolded her for getting credits instead of passes. Afterall she was given money. For him, the credits she got meant that she was owing. What was good for him was “pass,” period.
Is it this Etudo that gave Gringory of the Masquerade his dual ethnicity – his father came from Ikot Ekpene and his mother, from Arondizogu, and he speaks Ibibio and English with flawless Ibibio accent?
Yes, you are right. The gentleman really was influential in my family. And, you see, I planned Masquerade to take care of so many things. That is why it was episodic; not a serial but a series. That is why every week had a different theme from the week before it. And people enjoyed it.
How did you gather those that played your characters?
When I came back from the United Kingdom in 1967, my English was still raw, raw in the sense that it was still English man's English. But then Julius Eke had a programme he called Nwaelekebe which became Ichoku later. Davis Ofor, Clarus of Masquerade was its Nwadisi. When Julius Eke heard me he thought I would make better Nwadisi than Davis Ofor. I took over from him. But I had something coming, that is Masquerade, and David Ofor was the first artist I got. It took some times before I got others. I got my first Zebrudaya, Nwora Asika, Ukpabi Asika's younger brother. But he was in the OB Unit, that is the Outside Broadcasting unit. So he did not have much time and was not always available any time I wanted him. So I found somebody else in the person of Nsofor Obua, who was also in the ministry. But you see, Nsofor was sounding too English than the Zebrudaya I made out of my father. So I dropped him. Then the present Zebrudaya, Chika Okpala, joined us. But he was playing Nati. He was potentially good when I tried him. That was why I adopted him and allowed him to play Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo, alias 4:30. And he did well with it and still keeps it till today, though he has spoilt the proramme. He killed it. But you can see that he was not the first or the second Zebrudaya. He joined us when the programme was already on course.
There was this misunderstanding between you and Chika Okpala, which led to your leaving the programme for him, and the NTA was on his side. What actually was the matter?
Well, it was in one of our episodes in Enugu. We came in for rehearsals, presentation and recording only to be told by Chika Okpala that the NTA had given over the programme to him to produce as an independent producer. I said why. I told them that the NTA had no reason whatsoever to sell my programme to anybody else. So I kicked against it. I told lawyers and they wrote. And a time came when some friends advised me and said: “well, forget this. Better go and create something new and see what you can do with it.” But I didn't like the idea. It is even getting worse now. Initially, the programme was sponsored by the defunct Co-operative and Commerce Bank. But Zebrudaya and Jegede went and got sponsorship from Universal Trust Bank (UTB) of the “unblessed” memory. At a time two of them quarelled. And again NTA became angry with Chika Okpala for adopting the costume, the language and character of Zebrudaya for private use. They took him to court. But he got to Jerry Gana, Minister of Information at the time.
Zebrudaya told Gana that the Masquerade belonged to James Iroha, that he did not know if he had handed over the patent to NTA. I was invited and I confirmed that the Masquerade indeed, belonged to me and that there was never a time I handed it over to NTA. And Zebrudaya was let off the hook. But he has ruined the programme. He is everywhere performing in many progrmames as Zebrudaya. You see, he is a mono- actor, not a flexible actor. Whatever he does, he does it as Zebrudaya. If he leaves Zebrudaya and performs as another character, nobody will begrudge him. But he performs as Chief Zebrudaya in any show, even as a stand-up comedian or as MC in an action; you see him as Chief Zebrudaya. But I am thinking seriously. I must do something. If I can't, my children will definitely do something about it.
There is a body in Nigeria responsible for protecting people's intellectual property, that is the Nigerian Copyright Commission, have you taken your case to them?
Not at all. In fact, I don't think I have any axe to grind with Chika. He is my boy, even though he doesn't appreciate that. But he has shown me some favour. When my wife died, he came from Enugu to my village and made a donation. When I was made a chief of my village, he also came and made a donation. But it looks like treating me like a child. But I have been showing maturity in the face of his provocation. What am I talking about? Teach a person how to fish, don't give him fish. Let's do business on equal terms. Not when you feel like you come and give me N10. Take this for so, so and so. Thank you very much. Now go to his office, what you see there is ZB Productions, Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo, alias 4.30.
That is the name you gave him?
That is the name I created and gave to him as my character. Now he is using it for his personal business.
But you were doing the programme for NTA and they know what is happening between you and Chika Okpala. If so, why have they not come up with a position.
Well, NTA was in fact peddling backwards in its intervention, saying that Masquerade does not belong to me, that I created the Masquerade when I was their staff. But the copyright law says that if an artist created a programme on his own and his employer is using it that the copyright belongs to the creator. But if the employer commissioned the artist to create the programme, copyright belongs to the employer. There was no time the NTA commissioned me to create a programme for them. And even if they asked me to do that it was for a time, which must expire. But there was no such time they commissioned me to create a programme for them. They don't have the rights to the Masquerade. The right belongs to me.
You and Chika Okpala had paired very well to bring laughter to the sitting rooms of Nigerians. You create and he interprets very well. Is there no way two of you can bury your differences and come together again, especially as I can see that the sea of creativity and humour is not yet dry in you.
It depends on Chief Chika Okpala, because he thinks that without him not much can happen. You understand? But he forgets that there are so many Zebrudayas in this country now. It's a question of asking them to come. We can find someone who will even beat him on it. Like I told you, he is the fourth Zebrudaya, though he will consider himself most successful, but there are so many Zebrudayas who have entered the market now. What matters is, if the NTA refuses to give us their television as medium of expression, let them say so. Now I want to take back my programme and go to another medium or media. If the Zebrudaya you know wants to join us, okay; if he doesn't want to join us, he can go. But he must stop using that name Zebrudaya, using it for his business, privately or officially. It belongs to me.
If you get back the right should we be expecting New Masquerade soon, since there are many television stations that would want to air it?
It is not going to be New Masquerade. It was originally Masquerade. It was the NTA that changed it to New Masquerade, and the reason was nothing other than to deny me the ownership. They also did the same thing with Samanja of Kaduna. So my programme is Masquerade, not New Masquerade. And I want my programme back to me. Whether new or old, it is the same programme created by me. Whenever they give it back to me we are ready to give it back to Nigerians. And I want to let them know that I am not committed to them. The programme is mine. I have given them time to make up their minds. They have not given me one kobo as the creator of the programme. Time even came when they denied me credit as the creator of the programme. They said the programme was not created by me but by somebody whom they mentioned and said the person was dead.
I can see you are still ready to go on with the programme. But some of your major characters like Jegede, who is dead and Clarus , who has gone blind, will not be there again for you. Can you easily replace them?
We are not going to have any problem caused by the absence of those. If Clarus is not there it doesn't really matter. Originally, Zebrudaya had only one house boy, Clarus. But at a time he did something terrible which I will not want to relate here, and I removed him and created Gringory, which I played. And I came in not to do what Clarus was doing, but to do something entirely different, and it clicked. We can also find a new Clarus, if it becomes necessary. Jegede too is replaceable. Others had played that role before him. So we are definitely not going to have any problem.
Nollywood has become a big deal in the film industry, having been recognised all over the world. You were there at the teething stage. You featured in Nneka the Pretty Serpent and few others, but disappeared from the scene. Why are you no longer in Nollywood?
I would not say I am no longer in Nollywood. But, you see, I don't want to cheapen myself before them. If they call me, I will not go because of money, but to perform to the best of my ability, to receive people's praise before the money. Nollywood is doing a good job. So if they believe they can do without me, it's alright. But they are doing very well. If they call me today, I will deliver. I believe that adults should be playing for children. They are not doing that. We say children should not watch certain films. They say: “This film must not be watched by children under 16 years, but you see 10-year-old children playing a role in what a 16-year-old must not watch. How do we reconcile this? You see, what I am saying. When they say, “come and play this part,” I ask for the whole script. I don't just sign on a dotted line, because drama is not drama unless the action has happened, is happening or will happen. It must either be new, classic or didactic. When it neither teaches a lesson or corrects a wrong it is no drama, and I can't be a party to it.
What is your assessment of the young actors in the industry.
Oh! they are wonderful. But you see, what they are doing is what they want them to do, and they do it very well. They have no reason to say I don't like this or that. They don't have the guts. But we should perform to teach the audience. In South Africa, when Mandela was in prison, all South African artistes, theatre artistes, graphic artists, painters, name them, rallied round and performed until Mandela was freed. Why can't we perform a play on how to kill corruption in Nigeria. People like Zebrudaya, James Iroha and others can dock corruption and ask him to say who brought him to Nigeria. We can dock corruption and make him uncomfortable. That is the work of artists, not just performing for performance sake. We were doing it in Masquerade. We can still do it again, and these little, little things going on does not excite me.