Okey Bakassi always wanted to entertain. Even though Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST) where he schooled did not have a theatre arts department
Okey Bakassi and some other students with like minds and interests came together as a group called ‘Theatre Kolleagues’ for the purpose of acting and entertaining the university community and its environs. Considering his experience both as actor and stand-up comedian at RSUST and coupled with experience garnered during his service year as a member of the Lagos State drama troupe it was only natural for him to want to carry on in that direction. Hence after service, Okey stayed back in Lagos and thereafter met with popular movie producer and director, Zeb Ejiro who in 1993 gave him his first opportunity to appear on a network television production – ‘Fortunes’ where he played Nick, one of the Johnson’s bodyguards. Okey featured in about eleven episodes of the soap opera before the home video industry took the centre stage.
The first son in a family of five children, Okey Bakassi was born on 23, October 1969 to Mr. Livinus Onyegbule, a retired military personnel and Mrs. Felicia Onyegbule, a nurse. He had his primary education at the Alvan Ikoku Demonstration School, Owerri before proceeding to Mbaise Secondary School where he stayed briefly before moving to Federal Government College, Port Harcourt. After secondary education, the Imo State -born artiste got admitted into the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST), Port Harcourt where he studied agricultural engineering for five years, graduate in 1992 and got deployed to Lagos for the mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Programme.
Very few people know that his real name is Okechukwu Anthony Onyebgbule and yet many more do not know how he got his other names. Smiling and gesticulating as he often does while on stage, he explains:
‘I was born Okechukwu Anthony Onyegbule but today, my friends know me as Okey Bakassi. I did not choose the ‘Bakassi’; my friends in the entertainment business gave me the name. Then one thing most people don’t know is that the Mc Anthony is my own coinage. The real name is Anthony but while in school, because I started stand-up comedy while in the university, the name they used to call me then was MC Okey”. So, when he left school, and wanted to start the entertainment business afresh as a professional, choosing a name by which he would be known posed problem for awhile before he finally came up with one. “I was looking at a name that would be catchy and easy for my fans to pick irrespective of their tribe or wherever they are from. That was how the coinage of Okey Mc Anthony came up. This is the first time I am telling anybody. Okey is the short for Okechukwu, Anthony is my real name but I borrowed the MC from my University days and added it to the Anthony. That is how I came up with Mc Anthony. So, Okey Mc Anthony is an actor, a movie producer and a director. Okechukwu Onyegbule is a family man, while Okey Bakassi is a comedian.”
Having studied agricultural engineering in contemporary Nigeria many people would have expected him to at least give the profession a trial. What really happened, why did he choose some other area? “Till tomorrow, I still have my passion for engineering. I love engineering, I love to create which is probably why I am also interested in the arts.” According to him he sees some similarities in any area of human endeavour that involves creativity. Creating what was not and bringing it to reality provokes a kind of happy and accomplished feeling, which Okey described as simply orgasmic. “In as much as I miss practicing engineering sometimes, for the fact that I am bringing characters to live also helps me capture that feeling. It is not completely lost.”
Knowing that people, especially his parents and close relations, expected him to practice engineering having graduated as an engineer, the stand-up comedian said the Nigerian factor didn’t help matters. As he did his NYSC programme at the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank (NIDB) where he worked at the Project Resuscitation Department he discovered that he started developing interest in banking as he soon found himself enmeshed in a situation of indecision. The onus of choosing between engineering, entertainment and banking faced him completely. “My first love at that time was engineering”. Coming close to securing a job with Dizengoff, an agricultural engineering company, and an advice from a close friend who had been in Lagos long before he arrived made him look elsewhere.
Considering the harsh realities of living in Lagos, this friend gave his opinion about paid employment and being self-employed. At the end of the discussion, Okey opted to move on with the entertainment industry. “I weighed all the options and I decided that well, let me give the entertainment industry a chance because it is one area that gives me the greatest joy and we thank God today that it also provides for me. I guess I made the right choice.”
Choosing to go the way of entertainment was okay by Okey as he decided to remain focused and determined at reaching the top. But for most of his friends and family members back home, it was an unwelcome development. They found it difficult to comprehend why Okey left engineering for entertainment. “There was a lot of pressure. This was at a time when the entertainment industry was not paying and we the artistes; we weren’t getting our due respect. To most Nigerians, one couldn’t really make a living from entertainment. They saw it as an area for drop-outs and never-do-well”. The nasty and derogatory manner in which his new found love was described, instead of disturbing him, hardened him the more as he resolved to face entertain head on. “From that moment, I cancelled the idea of looking for a job. I told myself that I would concentrate on the entertainment and wouldn’t look for any job and I am going to succeed. I put all my energy to it and it paid off”.
Having started professional acting with Zeb Ejiro’s ‘Fortunes’ before featuring in Nigerian home videos, Onyegbule’s comic talent wasn’t prominent until much later. Even though he was actively into stand-up comedy during his undergraduate days, Okey concentrated only on his acting career, as the RSUST community is incomparable to a city like Lagos. But apparently destined to also make a mark in stand-up comedy, friends and professional colleagues started noticing his comic traits at locations and social gatherings and with a short while a friend introduced him to Jazzville where Mohammed Danjuma was in charge of affairs then. Given the opportunity by Mohammed, Okey performed above expectation as he succeeded in thrilling the audience comprising people from different walks of life with hilarious jokes. ” That was how I started performing at Jazzville in 1994. So, gradually, one started getting stand-up comedy shows and events to handle.”
Now fully involved in comedy, he featured in major movies and entertained on different stages across the length and breadth of the country as he got a new appellation- stand-up comedian. In a bid to make entertainment in general and stand-up comedy in particular livelier and more entertaining Okey, in collaboration with Opa Williams and Reginald Ebere sat down to fashioned out a way forward. What came out of the sitting was ‘Night of A Thousand Laughs’. “So, in 1995, we got the best of Nigerian comedians, packaged the show, spiced it with music and it worked.” The first edition, according to Okey Bakassi, wasn’t successful because corporate sponsors didn’t support them. But the subsequent year saw Opa Williams investing some money he realised from his movie business into the project and it became a success. “Myself, Reginald Ebere and Opa Williams created the concept of ‘Night of A Thousand Laughs’ “.
Also a movie producer and director, having produced ‘Final Decision’ (1996), directed ‘All For Winnie’ (1998) and produced and directed ‘Just Once’ (2000), Okey Bakassi admits that the business has really favoured him financially but asserted that it could be better. ” In any other civilised world, you don’t do the number of movies I have done and not be a millionaire. Here, the Nigerian factor is another thing. But, it has not been bad. I have done well by His grace. We have seen millions, either in piece-meal or in bulk. But no be dat kind money; we never there yet. We never reach there. The joy of knowing that you put food on people’s tables as well as make them happy is the overriding factor.”
On his most challenging movie, the Uniport alumnus said every job is challenging just as every audience is a new one. Even if it is made up of almost the same people entertained in the past the composition will always be new since one or two persons may not have seen one perform. In his view the presence of this one or two person matters a lot. “Even if it is the same audience, their state of mind would not be the same as the last time you saw them, so their attitude towards your performance wouldn’t be the same. The same thing is applicable when you are doing a new movie. It is a new challenge. It is not the same kind of character you are expected to play. It might be a comedy but the character and story line is always different. So, it comes with an entirely different kind of challenge”. He also believes working environment, to a great extent, determines the level of challenge of a work. According to him, if the producer makes the working environment easier for one to perform his task by providing, for instance, very good costumes, and beautiful locations, good welfare and remuneration packages, things would go smoothly. But if reverse is the case, the task of performing well becomes more difficult.
Having come this far in the entertainment industry, does Okey intend going back to engineering one day? “Once an engineer, always an engineer. That aspect of me cannot die because I spent five good years of my life studying engineering. So, it is not something you can just wish away. In fact, if there were a way to combine both, I would have been doing it. But, you cannot give your best when you do two things at the same time.” His passion to go back and start practicing engineering is so strong that Okey plans to establish an engineering firm as soon as possible. “I would love to own an engineering company, no matter how small because I like to also fiddle with machines when I am not entertaining”.
Relatively successful in his career, Okey Bakassi said his success didn’t come in one day as he narrates how he lived and struggled to make ends meet in Lagos without having a shelter over his head. According to him, he was a mobile squatter.
Very much used to his environment and friends in Port Harcourt, he showed reluctance in traveling to Lagos to resume for the NYSC programme. But when he finally arrived, he instantly disliked the place for its roughness but being the adventurous person that he was he resolved to stay put since, according to him, those who live and survived in Lagos didn’t have two heads. Service year came to an end and parental pressure took over, as they wanted him to return to Port Harcourt since he was going through rough times in Lagos. Not wanting to remain under his parents at this stage, Okey decided to brave the situation by staying back to manage with entertainment where he got very close to nothing as income.
It wasn’t until 1995 that he started earning the kind of money that enabled him rent a room of his own. Before then, he described himself as a mobile squatter. “At a point, I came close to living under the bridge. There was this particular night; I had nowhere to sleep so I went to my friend, Lakemfa Jones, who was living at Amuwo-Odofin at that time. I strolled out of the house with no particular destination I mind. At that time, they didn’t give accommodation to corpers, the only thing one was entitled to was staff bus and the little allowance and you cannot sleep inside the staff bus. After roaming the streets, I later came back to Lakemfa’s place to tell them I didn’t know where to pass the night. After talking to his family members I was told to stay. To me it was one of the greatest favours anybody did. They accommodated me for months and I was like a family member and when I was ready to go, they didn’t want me to leave. But the first person that accommodated me was Dozie Mba, my schoolmate at the university. He was my first landlord. Then he was living at Ketu. From Dozie, I moved in with Lakemfa , then to Gbagada to live with a relative and then to Agege before moving into my own one room apartment at Palmgrove in 1996. It was from Palmgrove I moved to Festac Town, to Port Harcourt and from Port Harcourt to Maryland.”
According to Okey, all along, he didn’t show interest in Lagos girls because he had enough stress to contend with. ” My brother, as a young man struggling to put his foot down in a new city, women were not in my list at all. You cannot be into women and be a roving squatter. Where will you take the girl ? So, women were no in the picture at all until I got my own apartment. When reminded that it was then the likes of Shan George strolled into his life, Okey became surprisingly shy as he retorted: “O boy , na you sabi..na you sabi”. What really happened between both of them then? “Nothing happened. We were dating just like every other person at one time or the other dated and you know, dating na temporary thing . Nobody wants to date for life; you date for a while and either graduate to the next level or you move on. Since we were no going to graduate, to the next level, we moved on and the beauty is that she got married and I got married and everybody is doing well. Besides, she wasn’t the only one, I dated other people. And what hindered the relationship from graduating to the next level? ” I guess from the onset, it wasn’t part of it. It wasn’t designed to graduate to the next level. We were friends, we did business together and we had a healthy relationship. Marriage wasn’t in the picture at all. We sticked to our agreement, we sticked to how we wanted it.”
Presently married to Ezinne Waboso, Okey said from the day one, she is the first and the last in his heart. “We met in Port Harcourt in 1998, but academic pursuit made us go separate ways. She had to travel abroad to further her studies while I had to remain here to pursue my university education.
She obtained a degree in English Language in Canada, decided to stay put and work. So, for those years we were apart and you know, my brother, nature abhors vacuum. She was Waboso when we started, but now she is Onyegbule”.
Okey and Ezinne are blessed with a daughter-Chidera. Describing marriage life as wonderful, Okey said: ” I have never been this focused in my life. I guess that is what marriage does to you, especially when you have a happy marriage”.
Filmography: Stupid, Two Bad Boys, Tortoise, Four Forty, 9 Wives, Drummer Boy, Bullet, James and John, Fork Up, Pam Pam, Silent Night, Taboo, The Soul that sinneth