Justus Esiri (1942-2013)

| March 1, 2013 | 0 Comments

The actor who brought dignity and avuncular glow to his trade

In an ironic reversal, he ultimately embraced the TV drama he once disdained; he became the unforgettable pivot of the play, and acted the title role to the admiration of a nation-wide audience. By his account, “Before I featured in that programme, I never liked The Village Headmaster because of the pidgin English.” But between 1985 and 1989, Justus Esiri was the eponymous hero in the long-running TV drama series, one of Africa’s first, created in 1968. It was in 1989 controversially rested by the Nigerian Television Authority. His part as an educated character in a bucolic inter-ethnic setting demanded a mastery of English, which perhaps explains his conversion. This was the turning point in a stage life that raised him to celebrity. According to him, he subsequently acted in “over 140 network television programmes.”

His numerous roles in Nollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry, seemed a logical extension of his acting talent, and he grew into an exemplary father figure in the sector. Various entertainment awards for excellence crowned his efforts; but the icing on the cake was, without question, the national honour of Member of the Order of the Niger (MON) by the Federal Government in 2007, for his services to the country’s movie industry.

There is no doubt that Esiri had become a household name across the country by the time he died on February 19, aged 70. It is a credit to him that he remained focused and passionate about his art up till the end of his life. His last movie, Assassin’s Practice, hit the screen four days after his death. Esiri plays the lead role of a failed stock investor, Eviano, who hires an assassin to stage his suicide and make it look like a botched robbery so his wife and daughter can live off his life insurance. But he later discovers that the assassin is delusional and will not spare anyone, and he must do something to undo what he starts. “His professionalism could not be faulted, “said the film’s director and producer, Andrew Ukoko.

Indeed, Esiri was a consistent advocate of professionalism, both in acting and production. He stood for quality, and continually emphasised the need for good scripts and well-trained actors and actresses; as well as the importance of using the best modern production equipment. Nollywood should take his insight seriously. The movie industry has had to contend with criticisms of poor scripts, ill-trained thespians and shoddy production, which are not altogether unfounded. It is a potent irony that Esiri’s acting trajectory moved from the sublime to the low. He began with high-scale drama with The Village Headmaster and ended with an industry far less accomplished, a trajectory that reflects the history of Nigeria.

It is interesting that Esiri nursed big dreams about the place of Nollywood in the country’s socio-economic development. He was of the view that the movie industry could “bring a lot of foreign exchange to Nigeria if properly harnessed.” Also, he argued, “I know that this is an industry that we can use to cement a country. I know that it is an industry you can use for culture all over the country.” His inspiring vision is a challenge to the authorities and industry stakeholders.

One of his concerns, despite his own relative comfort, was that Nigerian thespians are materially under-rewarded. His observation shows that it is necessary to tackle such issues as industry organisation, access to funds and anti-piracy efforts, among others. On this point, it is regrettably true that there have been a number of cases in recent years involving popular actors who died in penury. Such unfortunate incidents are always a thought-provoking embarrassment.

Untainted by scandal, Esiri was a positive example in an industry well known for its dark sides. He demonstrated the extensive possibilities of acting by his versatility. He travelled a remarkable road. From his birthplace in Oria-Abraka, in present-day Delta State, he attended Urhobo College, Effurun, Warri; Maxmillian University, Munich; Prof Weners Institute of Engineering, West Berlin, and Ahrens School of Performing Arts in Germany. This trajectory produced the Esiri we mourn.

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Category: Entertainment