With her natural ability to move an audience, in more ways than one and her early introduction to the arts, Bikiya Graham-Douglas was always destined to become the all-around performer she is today. She has equally transported us to alternate realities and brought us back to earth through her work in theatre and film, but Bikiya’s purpose is much wider than that. Fuelled by her goal to impact lives, she’s creating opportunities and paving the way for the younger generation, through her organisation, Beeta Universal Arts Foundation. Here, she talks to Mo Adefope about the contrasting sides of her multifaceted career, the work she’s doing through her foundation and the importance of paying it forward.
You’re an actor, singer, a producer, an all-around creative so to speak. What inspired your love for the arts? Especially considering that you grew up with both of your parents being politicians.
Funny enough, it was my parents who are politicians that got me involved in the arts. They always had a deep love for arts, the both of them and then as I got older, I found out that when my mum was younger and still in school, she used to act but she ended up becoming a public health physician, she studied medicine. And then, my father, he actually even started off in science, he was a microbiologist but he got into politics and he was appointed as the commissioner for culture and tourism when I was a young child. So I grew up going to the theatre and the cultural centre in Port Harcourt, I grew up with a lot of artists coming around because of what my father did. We also had a choir come to our house every so often to sing and they would dramatise and it was just so amazing. My father also [loved movies] so he would get all the children together and we would watch movies with him and even when we went on holiday abroad, we would go to the theatre together. It was our thing to always go to the theatre, the movies and music concerts. So I grew up around the arts and I think that really influenced my love for what I’m doing today.
And when did you realise that performing arts was something you wanted to do as a career?
[At first] I didn’t know that I was going to end up in the entertainment industry but the thing was, when I went to watch plays, I was always sucked in. You know, the ability of people on stage to make everyone in the room breathe and react as one person was very intriguing for me, so I wanted to know more and more about it. The more I researched, the more I became interested and then, in secondary school, I was in the drama society so I used to act and sing, and even in church. By the time I got to university, I was like “You know what? This thing has been drawing me in for so long and I haven’t listened to it but I really want to do it, I want to give it a shot.” I was doing my economics degree then and I went to the guidance and counselling department and told them, “Look, I have a deep love for performance, what do I do?” and they offered me the option to study drama and music, which I did. My defining moment was performing on stage at the King’s Theatre in Portsmouth in the UK. I was cast to play a Japanese schoolgirl, so I was painted all white and it was so much fun and honestly, in that moment, I was like “Okay, this is the happiest I am, this is what I really want to do.” Then I decided to do it and afterwards, I trained as an actress and many years later, I’m still here. With singing, I was just that child that would sing in the bathroom and it was just in me and I really loved musical theatre, so I just stuck with it and I’m in a very good place now because I get to do all of the things I enjoy and it’s touching lives.
“We all have a responsibility to pay it forward and in our own way, contribute to other people’s lives and journeys.”
Beeta Universal Arts Foundation is an arts organisation which you created to promote and create opportunities for upcoming talent in the performing arts space. How did the idea for that come to life?
When I moved back to Nigeria, I [saw that] there was a lack of opportunities. I’m where I am because other people gave me platforms and I just feel like we all have a responsibility to pay it forward and in our own way, contribute to other people’s lives and their journeys. That’s really what Beeta is about, to create platforms for performing artists on their journey and equip them with skills. So I started this when I came to Nigeria because I felt like we needed more than just a production company, we needed a hub centred on plays and performance, where [performers] could interact and gain knowledge and that’s how the Beeta Universal Arts Foundation was born. We saw that there was a huge gap in art leadership in Nigeria and we wanted to [fill up this space]. We wanted to do a lot more, that’s also why we started the Beeta Playwright Competition. We’re currently in our fourth year now and I’m really excited about this edition.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Beeta Playwright Competition. What goals did you have in mind when you started this competition?
We saw that there was a vacuum in the voices of young playwrights, so we felt like we needed to create a platform for their stories to be told and documented because that is very important. I thought [to myself] that the only way we can immortalise their stories is by creating these platforms to encourage them to come out and write and give them the professional publication that they need. We also wanted to give them a chance to put on their production and [provide opportunities] for the next generation of performing artists.
And would you say that you’ve been able to create a lot of opportunities for the next generation through the playwright competition?
[Definitely]. When we started the competition, we did a national call-out and till date, we’ve had over a thousand entries from thirty states in Nigeria and also entries from Nigerians in the diaspora. With the winner, we edit their play and publish it, we have a partner publishing company that works with us to do that. Their plays are all available on Amazon, Okada Books and on other platforms and also in bookshops across the nation. We give them a million naira and we use half of that for the production of their book, so they see that that money is tangible, it’s going to something. The other half is what they use to push their careers and then, we put the play on stage. We produce their shows at Terra Kulture and the MUSON Centre. We’ve also done a national tour where we went to five universities with the aim to give the next generation, that’s the students, opportunities to produce their own interpretation of this new work and also to acquaint these new writers with the younger generation. And when we did that, we saw that there was a need to connect to universities, to also improve their learning environment. So we offered to help the winner (whoever won the campus challenge) by enhancing their learning environment. The University of Port Harcourt emerged the winner and they told us they needed editing suites for their filmmaking and we were able to get that for them and much more. It’s a full circle of development and it involves everyone in the ecosystem of performing arts because not only does a playwright gain from it, producers have new work, directors have new work, actors have opportunities. Everyone is enhanced through the competitions we’ve been doing and we’ve just seen how it’s been so effective. We organise symposiums, we organise talks and a lot of young people now know that, if they need to go somewhere to get help or to get some advice, they can go to the Beeta Universal Arts Foundation and they can get the connections that they need to help them on their journeys in performing arts in Nigeria.
Let’s talk more about your work as a performer. You’ve done a lot in the theatre space, performing in plays such as Saro the Musical, For Coloured Girls and Closer, just to name a few. What are the major differences for you when it comes to performing on stage versus acting for the screen?
The stage is larger than life, it’s really a true representation of who we are in Nigeria because we’re very melodramatic people. Also, the close proximity, the human connection with the stage, you really get to understand your power as a performer because on stage, you only have one take. You have the ability to just be you and draw people into your world. As I said to you, what really got me was [being able] to make people behave and react as one person and it’s just so powerful and so pure and I just really really love that about the stage. For film and TV, I love that you can reach so many people in so many different places at the same time. Film is also very subtle, it’s just you being there and not doing too much, that’s the beauty of it. The stage is larger than life but with film, you have to bring everything down to earth. It’s more realistic, it’s very truthful, that’s the difference. Another thing with film is that you [kind of] get to go into people’s homes. I was in a show called “Battleground” for two years and I played a Northern, Muslim woman who’s very manipulative, vindictive, relentless, I mean she would kill you if you got in her way. I remember walking on the street and people would see me and go, “Madam ha, you’re wicked oh, you shouldn’t be doing things like that” and I’m like “It’s not really me, it’s just a character.” But you know, there’s a familiarism that comes with people seeing you in film. They feel like they know you and know so much about you but you don’t really get that on stage.
“What I represent is far more than my size or the colour of my skin. I’m a performer and I’ve taken my work as a ministry to impact lives.”
Society has long set beauty standards that we’ve all in some way tried to live up to and even more so for people like yourself who are in the limelight and get a lot more criticism than the average person. As a plus-sized woman, have you ever experienced any discrimination in the film industry and how have you been able to look past this and keep moving forward?
I experience that everyday, every single day and it’s [crazy] because I’m in Africa. You see all kinds of shapes and sizes of women, there are many women who look like me on this continent, yet I’m discriminated against everyday. And it’s not just about me being a bigger person or a curvier woman, some people have told me that I’m too dark. But I’m very fortunate that I got to understand who I was from a younger age and I’m not easily swayed, I know who I am and I know that I’m not for everybody and that’s okay. I’ve had people tell me “You need to lose weight, you have such a beautiful face, brighten up, lose some weight, you’ll take over Nollywood.” People have told me that and people have outrightly told me that I’m too big. I’ve gone to a location before and they told me “We didn’t know that you were going to be so big so we didn’t make any arrangements” or people would say “Oh I don’t know how to style a big person so I don’t have any costumes for you.” I get that constantly, it happens everyday but you rise above it. I just feel like there’s someone for everyone, there are people that look like me and what I represent is far more than my size or the colour of my skin. I’m a performer and I’ve taken my work as a ministry to touch and impact lives positively and that’s what I stand for and I enjoy what I do. All that I’ve been able to achieve, I’ve done it looking the way that I look. I remember winning the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress, it didn’t have [anything] to do with my size, it was about my work, so I focus on that. I make sure that I do my work to the best of my ability and that’s what I want people to judge me on.
During this period, we’ve all had to make some adjustments to our lifestyles and adapt to the changes the global pandemic has brought about. And it has definitely affected the film industry and how performers and producers like yourself are able to work. As the world is starting to open up again, what do you think that the future of the film industry is going to look like?
I would say that it’s slowed down a little bit. We’re seeing people become more innovative with the way they’re making movies. People are changing the way in which they’re writing, the way in which they’re shooting. I was just talking to a producer the other day and they were talking about how you have to do tests for everyone and that’s really expensive. So the industry has slowed down but I think it’ll pick up again once we have more solutions and the economy fully opens up. We know more about covid-19 now than we did before, when the pandemic started. Now, we’re seeing advancements in finding a vaccine and by the time it becomes available, and things stabilise, people will feel more confident to come out again. Some productions have gone back to work, people are back on set shooting in Nigeria and they’re taking the [necessary] measures and precautions for shooting but a lot of people are not fully back at work. I’m not too worried about the industry, I believe that we’ll pick up again. We’re just going through a depression and we just have to keep going, that’s the most important thing. And because of this time that we have lost, people will do so much more, that’s what I believe will happen and it’s going to be a completely different style of storytelling. It’s going to be fresh because it’s unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.
Is there anything you feel you could have done differently at the start of your career? Or any mistakes you made that you would want younger people who are just starting out in the performing arts industry to learn from?
I’m not somebody who regrets things, good or bad and I don’t feel like you ever make a mistake. It’s either you win or you learn a lesson, that’s how I view it. But the only thing I would have done differently is that I would have started earlier. I was so afraid once, especially with my singing. I started performing a lot and I was getting gigs and while I was performing at a gig, my voice failed me. After that, I went mute because I became so afraid of my voice and I refused to acknowledge my voice for like two years. I actually thought I would never sing again but you know what? I found the strength. I’m a woman that prays and God speaks to me a lot. I’m flawed, but God loves me as I am and my flaws are a part of who I am, they’re a part of my journey. Another thing I want to share with young performers is to just do it courageously, take chances, do things that make you uncomfortable from a young age, it will help you build character on your journey. And there’s nothing wrong with being rejected because the truth is that our industry is an industry of rejection but it’s going to take one yes, just one, to put you on the right path. Also, don’t feel pressured to take roles because they’re what is available. Do the things that make you happy, do the things that you want to [be associated] with so you don’t wake up ten, fifteen years down the line and you’re filled with regret. Be very intentional about how you want to be seen and stick with it.
Your recent project as an actor, Witches, premiered recently. Besides that, what kind of projects are you working on? And what’s next for you in the near future?
I’m quite excited because I have really beautiful [projects] coming from my production company, Beeta Productions. Over the lockdown, I finished off a few documentaries that I had been working on. We’re also in the process of producing a three-part film which I’ll also be starring in. I’ve just been getting my production company up and running, great things are coming. Also, in the theatre space, for the third Beeta Playwright Competition, a woman won and I was really excited because a woman had never won [before that]. So I’m now in the process of publishing her play and we’re also going to be doing a radio version of the play because we can’t all go back to the theatre. This is a new idea because we’ve never done a radio play before. I’m also working on another TV show that I’m going to be a part of but I can’t speak about it yet. One more thing, I’m going to be having a musical night so people will get to see me as a musical performer very soon. I’m very excited about that one.
Photos by Peter Okosun