by Mazi Emeka
Joke Silva is a familiar face, and name, for at least three generations – and she is the gift that keeps on giving…
It is 10:57 when I finally meet with Joke Silva at her office – a floor above the lobby of the acting school, Lufodo Academy of Performing Arts (LAPA), owned by Silva and her actor-husband, Olu Jacob.
The lobby of the academy was an intimidating, mad mash of gyrating bodies and raised voices, energy oozing as a large number of actors practiced a dance routine. Daunting, and at the same time beautiful.
Silva holds the door open as I enter; her face lined with an endearing and (forgive the cliché, for it is true) maternal smile that sears itself to one’s memory. And it is not just her smile that is memorable; it’s her… ease. Of laughter, and openness.
I ask about the energy from the dance drama downstairs. She explains, laughing, that it’s the audition for a play.
“We’re planning a musical,” she says, “It’s called Heartbeat and it’s coming up from November 30 to December 18. We start rehearsal by September 1.”
Written years ago by Tosin Kehinde Otudeko, the play is set in Lagos – “the heartbeat of Nigeria, it talks about relationships, which is the heartbeat of love, and it also touches on hope -the heartbeat of life.”
Adorned in a floor length flowing gown, Silva’s face is without makeup; her dark skin is even toned and relaxed. And yes, she looked young – not in the much-talked-about ageless way, but in a striking present-ness. Like she is young because she is truly half her age.
She is easy to talk to, making it easy to assume that I’ve always known her. But she picks her words carefully, often beginning with uhs and ahs as she searched for the right words to use.
She bites into the questions immediately. And she speaks in a clear, unrushed British accent that somehow made her words much more earnest, and easy to grasp.
Arguably one of Nollywood’s largest personalities, Silva had first appeared on the screen in the mid-80s and like a queen, she had ruled the theater and movie world. She witnessed the transition from celluloid to video. She has witnessed the move from Nollywood to New Nollywood. And she also witnessed the renaissance of theater drama. And she stands relevant, all through.
Born in an age and time when performing artistes weren’t viewed in the best of light, the now 54-year-old was particularly lucky as she fought through the social misconception about the arts and its rewards. She had parents who were well educated (her mother – who passed on this year – was the first Nigerian woman to be awarded a medical degree, and her father, a lawyer).
But they were both in love with the arts.
“I was blessed with the parents I had,” she says. “When I showed a passion for it, they encouraged it. They encouraged me by grooming my talent –(though) more as a hobby than a profession.”
So her parents “were a bit taken aback” when she informed them that she would be pursuing the arts as a profession. They (Silva’s parents) wanted her to take a year out after her ‘A’ levels to consider her option, explore, and be sure that she really wanted to pursue acting.
If only they had known.
Her gap year turned out to be an exciting, busy period for her. She landed a lot of acting gigs both on stage, television and on the radio.
“The journey wasn’t easy,” she says of life as a young actress. “Before I left for drama school I was working all the time, almost round the clock.”
In those days, Silva says, she used to do her television recordings at the Nigerian Television Authority in Victoria Island at night into the early hours of the morning: “From there I would rush home, take a bath -sleep if I had time- and probably dash to radio for radio plays and then dash to the national theatre to rehearse for a play. There was a lot of work.”
Realizing this was truly what she wanted; her parents gave in and asked her to formerly train.
She enrolled in the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.
While still in drama school, Silva said she got the occasional work during the holidays. At times, she took part in some BBC radio plays. In her final year in school, she landed a role in a play at the Royal Court theatre in England.
She returned to Nigeria after her studies abroad. Then, all of a sudden in the early to mid-90s, the work stopped coming.
“This work dried up oo,” Silva lets out a low yelp. “It wasn’t funny! It was like… What am I saying, I think it was around that ’87 onwards to the early 2000s.”
Although she still got jobs at the National Theater, television work had all but dried up, as the industry transitioned from celluloid to video.
“There was a period when everything just dried, and I am like ‘father Lord, what’s this?” Silva says before bursting into laughter.
So she decided to go back to school.
She had just had her first child, and was expecting the second. She enrolled in the University of Lagos for a Bachelor’s degree in English.
Just after enrolling into school “work started coming again!” Silva says, trying to stifle her laughter, obviously enjoying the story. She was able to pay her way through school with the acting jobs that she got.
“I never got to use the certificate I got from it till about three years ago. Yeah, that was when I went to collect it.”
And if Silva wasn’t an actor, she says she would have probably become a lawyer. She quickly adds that she loves teaching too.
Little doubt about that: Silva currently serves as the MTN Project Fame Faculty Principal while also working as the Director of Studies for LAPA.
Silva, who is famous for passionate defense of women in the media and arts, soon moves to the subject of the progress of women in her industry.
“As a performer, for instance, you see that the life of male actors goes on for a pretty long while,” she says of the difficulties women face.
Male actors, Silva says, “tend to have writings that accommodate them through the ages. But, somehow, women once you reach a particular age, the wrinkles are showing and things like that; the scripts don’t come as regularly.”
She blames this misnomer on writers, saying some writers do not know how to write about the challenges of women in their middle ages. “Also because this industry, in all areas, is dominated by men,” she adds. “You then get the pressure for sexual favors just to make a breakthrough.”
And vice versa: “Some people out of desperation will offer because they want the work. But the onus is now on you, as the provider of the work, to reject and reassure the person that even if you don’t get this, you’ll get another.”
Silva (winner of the Best Actress prize twice at the Africa Movie Academy Awards and this year given the Lifetime Achievement Award) decided after a while that there was more she could do than share her talent.
With her husband, she observed a gap in the industry: the practical and theoretical aspect of performing arts – people with incredible talent but no training were coming into the industry, while the university programs offered were more theoretic than practical.
“With university training, fantastic,” she shared. “But it is very theoretical.”
The couple took advantage of the gap in the industry and launched their performing arts school, LAPA.
Tapping into their areas of core competence, which are acting, producing, directing, Silva and her husband stated the academy to bridge the gap between the practical and the theoretical.
Clearly a partnership that has worked in several areas, Silva’s marriage to her husband is the stuff of legend – as far as anyone can see (and, really, we want it to be perfect), it is happily ever after.
“We’ve been very blessed,” Silva says of her relationship with her husband Olu Jacobs when I draw her attention to an online article describing them as Nollywood’s power couple. She laughs and says “We’ve had our challenges like every other married couple. I guess one of … it’s actually a blessing and a challenge at the same time, you know when we’re both in the same profession and that profession tends to be in the limelight. But we’ve learnt how to handle the challenge over the years.”
Name it, she’s done it.
Silva has performed across several platforms, television, film, radio and theatre. These days, however, she finds herself mostly on the stage, literally.
“Right now, my career is thriving a lot in theatre at the moment,” she explains. “It’s not as if I don’t get the occasional screen work but I seem to have been more in theatre in the last couple of years.”
And her popular credits as a director?
She candidly points out that she has only directed one play as a professional. Perhaps, people call her a director due to her work as the Director of Studies for LAPA, she says.
“I’m more of a producer.” Pause. “And an actor,”
For a generation of young women and young actors for whom Silva’s excellence has been both inspiration and anchor, those words are validation eternal: “She is an actor, an icon; and I can be one too.”