RMD @ 60: From zoo story to urban flourish

By Toyin Akinosho

Richard Eyimofe Damijo (RMD to most people), has probably more myths woven around him than most of his colleagues.

Which is as well.

When you’ve inhabited the make-believe space for close to 40 years, the Universe sees you as the characters you play, not the person you are.

Rechard Eyimofe Damijo

Out of Bounds was one of the earliest attempts to overhaul Nollywood as we knew it then. The story of a young lady who couldn’t get pregnant several years after wedlock and her philandering pastor husband who gets a teenager impregnated, was deeply resonating at a time when everything else was about “selling your soul to the devil”.

One of the more harmless myths about Richard is that he is an actor, actor, and actor. No more. He has been faithful to acting and acting has brought him fame and prosperity, but the reality is that this is one of the most rounded artists of my generation.

It all started in a Park… RMD

When I first met Richard in 1984, through a mutual friend, the sculptor Paul Ejukorlem, he was a journalist working for a glossy magazine named Metro.

That was five years before he met a woman with whom he collaborated to publish a magazine Classique, and eight years before he would launch a magazine of his own. Publishing is difficult now, today. 29 years ago, it was a nightmare. Richard’s Mr magazine was meant to be our response to the globally acclaimed GQ. It was quite a stretch of a race.

In 1984, the Pec Repertory Theatre was just three years old. Funsho Alabi and I had rounded up our youth service and I was working for The Guardian of Lagos. The happening young man in Lagos of 1984 was Tunde Kuboye, son of Abosede Kuboye, a wealthy businesswoman from Igbotako.

He was 36-year-old at the time; he was running a schools’ debate programme on TV, driving around town in a jeep, married to Frances, a drop-dead gorgeous, personable, and incredibly self-assured dental surgeon from the illustrious Kuti family, who was also a good jazz and R&B singer, with extensive vocal range. They were living in Ikoyi. An old boy of Igbobi College, with a master’s degree in Engineering from the United Kingdom, Tunde Kuboye was hosting jazz concerts and poetry readings at the National Museum in Lagos. As young Lagosians in our early 20s, we all hung out at those concerts. Tunde Kuboye was what we wanted to be.

The Onikan axis had always been where the arts of Lagos flourished. But across the Eko Bridge, in the vicinity of the National Theatre, a cast of creatives was cooking up a broth. The 1982/83 season was the start of the Ajo series of productions, a significant event which, in retrospect, colluded with the emergence of The Guardian to attract some of the nation’s most distinguished intellectuals, humanities scholars, and artistic talents, from Ibadan, Ife, and Benin, to Lagos. There were stage performances every weekend, even on weekdays. The seeds of a visual art boom were beginning to be planted. A cast of culture enthusiasts had invaded the commercial city. It was a ferment. Mofe Damijo was a part of these currents; he took the tide at the brim.

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Richard was, of course, a graduate of Theatre Arts from the University of Benin. He had, like any other stage-loving youngster of my generation, played the role of Bambulu in James Ene Henshaw’s This Is Our Chance, at school. But in Lagos of 1984, Richard’s real tutelage, to transform from, “I like Theatre” to “This Is My Work”, really began.

    With Ego Boyo in Violated

His earliest claim to national public scrutiny was his performance of the ambitious prince Demeyin in Fred Agbeyegbe’s 1985 play The Last Omen, the third major play of the Ajo Theatre Series, inspired, written, and financed by Fred Agbeyegbe and elaborately directed by Jide Ogungbade. But one of my favourites of Richard’s early-stage appearances in Lagos was his interpretation of a quiet, peace-loving, upper-middle-class New Yorker in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, at the USIS Auditorium, in 1986. Zoo Story is a two-hander, one-act play. Richard was playing against Funsho Alabi, whose role was the exact opposite; a down-on-his-luck, wretched-of-the-earth character who had apparently come into the city’s Central Park to terminate his misery. The challenge of Damijo’s character, who was being harassed by Alabbi’s character, was to make his own agony, loud and clear, in silence. An African actor expected to express pain and anguish, not by flailing of arms, not by screaming, not by all those gestures, but by his tweaks of facial expression, and subtle movement of limbs? It was a tough call. Richard delivered that script. It stuck in my memory.

            With wife, Jumobi Adegbesan

Let me go to the social side. Richard used to cruise around town in a beat-up but very interesting looking, flat engine Mercedes Benz he pried from his sister and we would all cram into it to go for rehearsals. At that time, he was dating a stunning ajebotatype lady named Adetutu in Surulere. I am sorry, Mrs. Jumobi Mofe Damijo, your husband was the guy every woman wanted to date at that time.

Fine boy through and through. Fine Wafi boy comes to Lagos, at a time when Wafi was not even a brand. Some female friends of mine used to claim that they wouldn’t look at Richard because he had a bum. When I looked into their eyes, I read something else.

So, the magazine Metro didn’t make it. Richard worked briefly at the Pec Repertory Theatre, a resident Theatre Company founded by the poet, playwright, and polemicist Professor J.P. Clark, to present regular performances by actors who were resident at the theatre. He wasn’t one of the resident actors. He was doing the back–end work and he was bored. After looking around, he washed up, with his friend Osita Ike, at the Concord newspapers, where they both worked for Mike Awoyinfa’s Weekend Concord. That’s why you could see in later years he was very comfortable working for The Sun. The Sun is a repackaged version of the defunct Weekend Concord. But that’s another story.

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Everybody knows the story of RMD and MEE. They were planning, if I remember correctly, to make MEE’s novel, Centre Spread, a soap opera.

When Richard married MEE, it was like work turned love turned work. One highlight of his work at Classique was the string of short stories he wrote. There were at least six of them, all works of compelling prose, that i know of. But I need to wrap up my commentary on his social life before I return to the literary side of today’s Birthday Boy.

It was on the fourth anniversary of Richard and MEE’s wedding that the world first witnessed a public performance of Lagbaja the masquerade. Of course, the first album, Side By Side was released in 1993. But in 1994, Lagbaja started experimenting with “full theatre performances”. A small intimate party, filled with what was then the usual suspect members of the arthouse crowd, some newspaper editors and advertising types, in the backyard garden of RMD and MEE’s house in Opebi, Ikeja, were gifted with a surprise, first public performance of the masquerade in what came to be his facial regalia.

I mention this particular episode because this is one of the things Richard likes to do; facilitating things. When the Committee for Relevant Art, CORA, a culture advocacy group that I co-founded in 1991, first started the art stampede, he told me we should rotate it. I said, “Well, why not”?

It’s a tribute to my poor planning that that did not happen. The art stampede was conceived as a quarterly parliament of artists, where we discussed everything from the current state of visual art practice to the sourness of official culture administration. I still agree with RMD that we should have allowed individuals to host it whenever they wished. What we settled for was to move the event around cultural spaces.

I nearly forgot this. Richard Mofe Damijo was one of those technically honed theatre artists who embraced Nollywood when it arrived in 1992. Unlike several stages and TV soap opera stars who were “ready”, but didn’t give the new movement a chance, he ventured.

“So, the magazine Metro didn’t make it. Richard worked briefly at the Pec Repertory Theatre, a resident Theatre Company founded by Professor J.P. Clark, the poet, playwright, and polemicist, to present regular performances by actors who were resident at the theatre. He wasn’t one of the resident actors. He was doing the back-end work and he was bored”

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And when Nollywood, having made the point in early years about commercially telling the Nigerian story on the big screen, began to falter in quality, he didn’t moan; he intervened. While everybody was complaining about the prevalence of rituals in Nigerian movies, he produced his own. Everybody knows that Out of Bounds instantly became a benchmark. But Out of Bounds not only led to the emergence of another genre of Nigerian home movie; the Gospel movie, but also signalled something very early in the day: Nollywood needed a revamp. Out of Bounds was one of the earliest attempts to overhaul Nollywood as we knew it then. The story of a young lady who couldn’t get pregnant several years after wedlock and her philandering pastor husband who gets a teenager impregnated was deeply resonating at a time when everything else was about “selling your soul to the devil”.

RMD, the proud, Happy Dad

Richard is living the best life, not because he is the one star we like to gaze at, but because he also manages to keep a family together wholesomely. When you’re married to the gorgeous Jumobi Adegbesan, and you’ve raised those terrific human beings together, you’re the champ.

RMD has ventured into several things: Public Relations, Communications Marketing, you name it. Before he went to become Governor Uduaghan’s Special Adviser for Tourism and Culture and then Commissioner for Tourism and Culture from 2007 to 2015, his company White Water Associates delivered a major exhibition of an unsung Visual Artist every year. And the exhibitions were usually top-notch.

And what about his poetry?

Let me sample one here:

MAMIWATA

Wind swept beach

Dawn,

Let me wake up in a tomorrow

Free from unending sorrow

RMD, Date?

I can’t recall when he wrote that poem.

But with that call to a tomorrow of flourish, I raise a toast to this awesome human being: reporter, columnist, actor, humanist, poet.

May you flourish and flourish and flourish, my brother.

Happy 60th Birthday.

Many Happy Returns of this day. Long Life and even more prosperity

Toyin Akinosho Secretary-General, Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), and publisher of Bookartville.com

Updated from a 2004 tribute, for this special day, July 6, 2021.

 Backlash of surging waves

Waters that touch the heavens

Let me empty my life

Down your voluptuous frame

Without fear or shame

Let me lay my hand

On ripe mounds of pleasure

And lock the world outside my eyes.

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