Williams: 50 years on stage and screen

Lari Williams

Artistic genius is typified by persistent search for beauty and a self-imposed commitment to excellence and the creation of beauty. In Nigerian arts and entertainment, you may never need to look further than Chief Lari Williams, a member of the Federal Republic (MFR), for a representation of these sterling qualities. All artists and the country at large should join Williams in celebrating the golden anniversary of his fruitful and rewarding involvement in the arts.

Immediately after independence, as a bright and enterprising youngster, Williams travelled overseas to train in England as a journalist, an actor and as a theatrical dramatist. To his credit, it was a Federal Government invitation to participate in FESTAC 77 that brought him back to Nigerian. Since then, an impressive catalogue of exploits has distinguished him, as an irreplaceable asset to the nation’s creative, artistic industry.

The man could be described as a rounded artist, the quiet star and a gentleman, who is dynamic in performance. In point of fact, his closest friends and associates admire him well enough to always cheerfully celebrate him as the Omenka I of Akumasi Kingdom, being the first traditionally titled Stage and Screen Chief in the Nigerian entertainment industry.

Williams was educated at CMS Grammar School, Lagos. He is the first actor to ever perform on top of Zuma Rock in Abuja FCT, 1,200 feet high, where he performed his late friend, Maman Vatsa’s poem, ‘The bird that sings in the rain.’ Williams was the first president of Actors’ Guild of Nigeria in today’s Nollywood. He was in the cast of Village Headmaster, Nigeria’s first soap opera. He was in the first home video ever made in Nigeria, titled The Witch Doctor. As a zealous lover of native, artistic forms, he was the first to bring on stage Egun Lapampa, a dreaded Lagos Island masquerade, as part of his play, Awero.

He has lectured Theatre Arts in three Nigerian universities – University of Lagos, Lagos State University, and University of Calabar. He is the first artist to be endorsed by two successive Nigerian presidents: Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR) from late President Musa Yar Adua in 2008, and a Lifetime Achievement Award, endorsed by President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan in 2013.

For 30 years running, Williams has been a columnist with Vanguard newspaper, where he writes a weekly column known as Stage and Screen. His repertory theatre company, the Lari Williams Playhouse, theatre of edutainment, has repeatedly thrilled ecstatic audiences with kaleidoscopic samples of his music, his poems, his plays and, most importantly, his acting.

After 50 years of excellent service in the arts, it is not easy to exhaust details of the many ways that Williams has contributed to the establishment, the growth, the development and the advancement of Nigerian entertainment industry. The beginning of his professional expertise is connected with his early work with the World Service of BBC Radio in a globally famous programme called Focus on Africa. For this programme, he contributed as a writer and performer of radio plays.

Similarly interesting are Williams’ formative roots, as a teenager in Lagos Island, where he was the ABA bantam-weight champion at Olowogbowo Boy’s Club, Lagos. He was equally the table tennis champion of the University of Iowa, U.S. in 1980-81. He later established a band called The African Spirits, based in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. in 1981-82. Most of the music played originally with his The African Spirits still feature in the Playhouse performances. Moreover, he has just finished a 10-track music album.

Williams has scored so many firsts, including being trained by Nigeria’s first world boxing champion, Hogan Bassey, at Elegbata in Lagos Island. He also has a record number of 17 Soap Opera appearances on NTA and he has had roles in no less than 15 home videos proudly made in Nigeria.Among African traditional musical instruments, drums have always carried a remarkable fascination for Williams. There is gangan, bata, omele and dundun, the iya ilu.

However, the jimbe, a traditional African drum native to Republic of Benin in West Africa seems to be his most affectionate love.Shortly after his return to Nigeria for FESTAC in 1977, Williams traveled all the way to Ede in Osun (then Oyo) State. He had heard that the king of that ancient town, Timi of Ede was a legendary performer on native drums. And so, Williams visited Ede to meet and honour the king. He later sought out and hobnobbed with other traditional music legends, including the inimitable Yussuf Olatunji.

For 50 years, the pursuit of artistic excellence has been the signpost of Williams’ work life. He has performed with some of the greatest drum players of all time. A ready example is Guy Warren, whose actual name was Kofi Ganaba, a Ghanaian musician based in New York and recognised as the greatest African drummer of his era in African and Afro-centric music. Williams performed together with Ganaba at the main bowl of National Theatre during FESTAC ‘77. Similarly notable are the Tettey Brothers, who were guests of Williams at his regular show at the Countdown Club in 1974 at Wells Street in London West End, as well as Niiapa Fleischer, conga drummer of the Ramblers dance band of Ghana.

In November 1971, 46 years ago, Williams produced his first full length play, Kolanut Junction, at the largest auditorium in London, the Commonwealth Hall with a galaxy of other Nigerian stars based at that time in England, like Olu Jacobs, Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett, Benita Enwowu – the first Joy advert girl, Rosemary Dacosta, late Femi Fatoba, and sculptor, Taiwo Jegede, still based in London.

Apart from Ambrose Campbell, Williams was the only Nigerian performing and entertaining at London’s West End in the 1970’s at Countdown Club West 1. Earlier, a Harringay Borough Council scholarship had taken him to Stratford East-15 Acting School, where he benefited immensely from first class thespian training.

In 1986, Williams got the prestigious Baba Awards from the “Extended Family,” and he greatly treasures it. He got it alongside his late friend, the great Fela Anikulapo Kuti with whom he also shared political ideologies, when they formed Movement of the People (MOP), a political party during Nigeria’s second Republic. Fela got the Baba Award in 1985.

The friendship with Abami Eda, Fela, was perhaps less physical and more spiritual. It was not only that Williams was Fela’s Vice Presidential candidate in the MOP, but three of Anikulapo’s children share names with three of Williams’ children: Femi, Sola and Seun even though there was never any consultation between the parents, when the children were named.

Some of Williams’ published works include plays like Black Current, Storm Baby, Kolanut Junction, Heartlines, and what he describes as his Swan Song, Drumcall for Herod, which is a biblical expose based on the life and experiences of John the Baptist and the dance of Salome. It is a play that Williams dedicated to another late friend, the Bishop Hartford Iloputaife.

For seven years running, Williams was both an adjudicator and a much-loved performer at the famous Calabar Carnival. His Repertory Theatre Company has equally toured Nigeria extensively with plays like Awero, by Williams, The Island by Attol Fuggard and his Afro-Cabaret – Drumcall. Beyond any shadow of doubt, looking back on 50 golden years of his fruitful artistic journey, Williams has certainly served the world of art and entertainment very well both at home and abroad.

What remains to be said is that the Nigerian government as well as the arts and entertainment industry in Nigeria should not allow persons, who have contributed so much to the industry to go unrewarded. Apart from giving awards to acknowledge creativity, there should be some form of retirement benefits that would guarantee the material wellbeing of our notable heroes in the twilight of their well-spent time in active service. This will demonstrate a befitting respect for the past, encouragement for the present and security for the nation’s creative, artistic future.

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Lari Williams
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