Profile: At long last here’s Lala Akindoju, Uncovered

Lala Akindoju

For the Lagos Theatre Festival, Lala Akindoju decided she was ripe for a one-woman show.

One-person shows aren’t the easiest of endeavors to pull off. The burden of single handedly holding an audience’s attention for a period of time isn’t one that every actor cares to take on, but Akindoju, an accomplished stage actress and producer, harbors no such fears. One of the pioneers of the contemporary theatre revival, alongside names like Kenneth Uphopho and Wole Oguntokun, Akindoju is nothing if not determined.

Whenever she sets her mind to a task, be it putting together a star heavy adaptation of an acclaimed play or scoring a lead role in a film by a veteran director, the famous Lala resolve- familiar to anyone who has been in her inner circles or worked with her on a project- kicks in.

This can be described as a burning and palpable desire to do whatever it takes as long as it is legal and humanly possible, to achieve set goals. In an industry that is famously hostile to setting structures in place, this resolve has been a lifeline for Akindoju. It has ensured she get her foot in when no one gave her a chance, helped her remain relevant and motivated, even when there could have been a million reasons to quit. And has kept her steadily focused on moving to the next level.

Akindoju can presently be seen on the big screen in the romantic comedy, The Royal Hibiscus Hotel– as close to an event film as Nollywood can manage. But sitting back and resting on her oars while the full might of the EbonyLife publicity train promotes the film would be out of character.

The Lala resolve has brought her to seize advantage of the opportunity that the Lagos Theatre Festival presents to stage Naked, her revealing one-woman act. She explains, ‘’I feel like as an actor, a one-woman show is like writing an examination to move to the next level and I was ready.’’

To see Naked– written by spoken word poet, Titilope Sonuga- is to take a peep into the mind of an artiste. Instantly relatable, yet sufficiently refreshing, Naked peels back the layers to uncover the issues that a lot of creatives struggle with on the daily. Insecurity, scarcity, feelings of worthlessness, social media scrutiny and harassment.

Directed by Kenneth Uphopho, Naked opens in a bedroom as Akindoju is making preparations to attend an event she has been penciled to host. She makes several unsuccessful attempts to reach the stylist she’s contracted to ensure she is presentable for the red carpet.

The wait opens up an opportunity for Akindoju to detail the challenges of working as an artiste. The rejection not just from auditions, but also from makeup artistes who see starlets merely as a stepping stone to the next gig, the hostile responses from fashion stylists who want to be attached to bigger and buzzier names, the bittersweet feeling of attending an awards event as a nominee and losing out in the category, only to be expected to cheer vigorously for the winner, the vast black hole that is the internet fashion police, and the futility in trying to satisfy them.

Alternating with moments of joy- a childhood recall where she narrates with fondness, her days at Queens College, Lagos- and passages of unflinching honesty, Naked features Sonuga’s signature poetic flourishes co-existing alongside high drama, the kind that Akindoju has spent many years on stage learning to master.

In the space of under an hour, Akindoju goes from naïve teenager to wizened woman. Her range as an actor is able to take her through the giddiness of falling in love, twice- one of them with a thinly disguised revolutionary- to the high of winning an Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Award Trailblazer award, and then the depths of a traumatic abuse incidence. She says, ‘’I wanted to talk about the things we think about but never quite talk about. When the red carpet is rolled up and gone, those intimate things that we don’t say out loud but feel. I feel like as I continue to grow and have a platform I want to tell these stories.’’

Making it happen

Not everyone is privileged to be making a living, doing exactly what they love but Akindoju considers herself one of those people. With a first degree in Insurance from the University of Lagos and a pricey Masters in Media and Communication from the Pan-Atlantic University, Akindoju could easily have made a career in the corporate world but the need to apply herself to the world through stories proved far too strong to resist.

Akindoju started her career on the stage, back when theatre was still the sleepy backwater of the entertainment industry and for three years, as part of Wole Oguntokun’s Renegade Theatre, she was one of the pioneers of Theatre at Terra, the weekly theatre sessions held at Terra Kulture that staged scores of productions and kick started dozens of careers.

Theatre at Terra was for Akindoju, the most rewarding school anyone seeking to know about the business could attend. From sweeping floors and moving around on motorcycles to handling money and managing people, there was almost nothing she didn’t do at this stage, all for the love of the arts. Looking back on that period of her life, Akindoju recalls, ‘’The years, 2007-2010 were very influential in shaping who I am today because working with Wole is serious work. I learned to produce then without even knowing what I was preparing for. I didn’t go to church at all for all of that period except there was a family occasion.’’

In an era that is desperate to dispense with delayed gratification, that kind of commitment to craft may be rare but it certainly paid off for Akindoju when she was named Best Actor at The Future Awards Africa in 2010.

It was an upset win. Facing competition from screen favorites Ini Edo, Tonto Dikeh and Ali Nuhu, only a handful of people beyond the theatre circuit even knew of her existence. But for those in the know, the win was certainly well deserved. Akindoju had quietly built a solid resume that blew all her competitors away. Her blistering work on stage had afforded her the opportunity to play every important role that mattered.

Taking the leap

The Future Awards Africa Prize was a much needed burst of encouragement, validation that it could all be worth it in the end. It also provided Akindoju with confidence that she was ready to take the next step. She says, ‘’I decided to do stage for a while because I wanted to learn and be trained, and be of a certain quality but after TFAA, I knew it was time to focus on film and television.’’

Still, she took baby steps and tested the waters with a few short films, before joining the cast of Charles Novia’s awful, Alan Poza, as well as scoring a guest role on the long running M-Net series, Tinsel. Award winning director, Tunde Kelani was looking to make his next project and had settled on adapting a novel, Dazzling Mirage by Yinka Egbokhare about the struggles of a young lady born and living with Sickle Cell Disease. Someone had recommended Akindoju for the lead role of Funmiwo but Kelani took a while to commit.

Beyond her physical ripeness for the role, Kelani needed her headspace to be ready. He gave her the book to read and then something in Yoruba to read as well. They had some fruitful discussions and he offered her the lead.

Dazzling Mirage is far from Kelani’s best work as the film let its do-gooder intentions get in the way of telling a smart story, but Akindoju  is decent in it and holds her own confidently. It was the film that was supposed to usher her into leading lady territory but for some reason, this proved elusive.

Akindoju tackles this bravely in Naked. Acknowledging that her physical appearance has gotten in the way of some really good jobs, she recalls a producer calling her a ‘’handsome girl’’, and several casting directors telling her she wasn’t quite the right fit. After Dazzling Mirage, it was obvious Nollywood didn’t quite know what to do with her as the lead role offers failed to pour in.

Team player

Akindoju leveraged on the opportunity though and found a way to score auditions with A-list filmmakers. She’s carved a niche for herself as a reliable team player, turning out decent work in films by Kunle Afolayan (The CEO), Mildred Okwo (Surulere), and Biyi Bandele (Fifty), only some of the biggest names in the business. At some point, Akindoju revealed that she once read for the role of Prema Mutiso, the character played by British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the Hollywood film, Concussion.

In The Royal Hibiscus Hotel for instance, Akindoju plays a small role as Chika, the man eating receptionist with a bad attitude and a phobia for hard work, but she is easily the best thing in the film. Even when the films she appears in have been trifling commercial nonsense, (Okafor’s Law, Alakada Reloaded,) Akindoju has almost always emerged from the rubble with her dignity intact. She says of her ability to attract work in high profile projects, ”I don’t even know how to do shakara. I walk up to people politely, greet them, introduce myself and tell them exactly how I want to be part of their project. If I go to places and aunty Joke (Silva) is there, I nudge her to introduce me, and she does.’’

The big screen may have its eternal appeal but some of Akindoju’s best work has been on the stage, both as an actress and as a producer and it is no wonder that she continues to return there. In 2013, she entered talks with the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), the owners of the rights to VMonologues, the Nigerian franchise of Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking play, The Vagina Monologues and through her newly formed production company, Make It Happen, secured the rights to stage a star heavy production.

Never minding that she was a first time producer, Akindoju went on to hire director Ifeoma Fafunwa, as well as a formidable cast of stage and screen talent, among them, Bimbo Akintola, Dakore Akande and Taiwo Ajai-Lycett.

The result was a fantastic production that not only resonated loudly, but also set the stage for Hear Word, the next iteration of the monologues. ‘’Brutal, unrelenting, heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting, (V-Monologues) strings together ensembles from a peerless cast and delivers a dizzying sucker punch,’’ this writer gushed back then in a review published on this platform. Recalling the experience, Akindoju says, ‘’I knew I wanted a quality production, that people will see and they won’t be like ‘’’let’s excuse her, she is a first time producer.’’ I wanted something that would be exceptional, artistic and performance wise.’’

It was.

So was her follow up production, a year later, an all-star revival of The Wives, Professor Ahmed Yerima’s dysfunctional family dramedy starring Joke Silva, Kate Henshaw and Ireti Doyle. As a way of giving back, Akindoju started the Open Mic Theatre initiative, a talent freestyle showcase that gathers tested stage and screen practitioners to improvise alongside studious up and comers.

She has worked as a casting director on the Ndani TV flagship series, Gidi Up, as well as on the quietly effective short film, Still Water Runs Deep which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last year. Titilope Sonuga who wrote Naked and is friends with Akindoju, observes, ‘’Professionally, Lala does not rely on her gifts alone. She is incredibly hard working and resourceful. If there’s a way to make it happen, she will do it.’’

Eye on the prize

These gifts aren’t limited to her work as an actress. At last year’s Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), Akindoju who hosted the Globe Awards and will do so ‘’for the next 50 years’’ according to founder, Chioma Ude, created the night’s biggest splash when she came on to sing and dance flawlessly to Brenda Fassie’s classic hit, Vulindlela. Her singing ability may have surprised a number of the people who rewarded her with a standing ovation, but for those who have followed her work on stage musicals like Kakadu, it was just another day in the life of a famously disciplined thespian.

Akindoju’s renowned determination is bolstered by her ability to create and nurture meaningful relationships. This explains why she has been able to work with brands like NdaniTV, AFRIFF, TFAA, Lights Camera Africa!!! film festival, Lufodo Academy of Performing Arts (LAPA) in different capacities . She is best friends with actor, OC Ukeje  and famously wore a suit when she served as a grooms man at his 2015 wedding.

On the occasion of her 30th birthday last year, Chude Jideonwo, CEO of Joy, Inc. wrote about her, ‘’That’s what makes her special. If she cares enough about it, she will give everything to it- no matter the cost.’’ Sonuga adds in an email, ‘’As a friend, she is fiercely loyal, and underneath her tough, go getter exterior, there’s a softer side that she makes readily available to the people she loves.’’

Because she has refused to make the trek to Asaba, where a large chunk of the straight to video movies are churned out, there is still a large proportion of the country that remains unaware of the punch that Akindoju packs. Her sights are set much farther. She’s been to film festivals in Cannes, Toronto and Durban, and works a room like a pro, aggressively going after what she wants. Best to make it happen yourself seems to be her mantra.

She may not land the big screen lead roles on the regular, but it is hard to imagine any of Akindoju’s peers more influential than she is.

All of that industry is bound to pay off eventually.

 

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