Akinlabi Holder is living his dream.
The actor, who began performing around the age of seven, wowed audiences with his compelling portrayal of Pa Cefus, one of the lead characters in the Tobago Performing Arts Company’s (TPAC’s) production of the Dr Lester Efebo Wilkinson play, Bitter Cassava, at the Magdalena Grand Beach & Golf Resort, Lowlands, on Easter weekend in April.
Holder was among a stellar cast which delivered memorable performances during the highly-acclaimed 1979 play when it premiered before a sold-out Colibri ballroom on Good Friday.
By public demand, Bitter Cassava had a second run on Saturday at the Shaw Park Cultural Complex.
On May 28 and 29, the TPAC will perform at the Naparima Bowl, San Fernando, Trinidad. Theatre lovers will also get the opportunity to see the production on June 3 and 4 at the Queen’s Hall, Port of Spain.
Bitter Cassava tells the story of Samuel William Blondell, a handsome, virile and cocky father of three who is the object of every woman’s desire in the village.
He has been in a common-law relationship with Justina, a simple, family-oriented woman, for three years.
But trouble befalls the couple when Betty-Lou, a beautiful, light-skinned ‘town girl,’ becomes romantically involved with Blondell, much to Justina’s chagrin.
Attracted to Betty-Lou’s physical appearance and seemingly worldly demeanour, Blondell ends his relationship with Justina and forces her out of the house. A heartbroken and vengeful Justina retaliates by inflicting a curse on Blondell and his new lover. Tragedy ensues.
Pa Cefus, the oldest man in the village, emerges as a voice of wisdom for Blondell and also narrates the play.
But in a Sunday Newsday interview, Holder confessed he was not initially drawn to the character of Pa Cefus but that of Blondell.
“I initially wanted to audition for the role of Samuel William Blondell only as I was drawn to that character. I love playing villains. For some strange reason, I feel I can connect with them better,” he said.
Holder said his wife suggested that he take on the role of Pa Cefus.
“My wife was more familiar with the play than I was and she really encouraged me to take up the challenge of playing Pa Cefus. And after a few days of her encouragement, I decided to go for the role and now I don’t regret it.”
On Bitter Cassava’s opening night, Holder played the role effortlessly.
He said, “The more I read the script and studied the character, the more I understood the complexity and nuances of Pa Cefus and I began to connect with him more. Playing that role has truly caused me to grow as a performer. I have had to step my game up considerably from what I am accustomed to.”
A familiar face on Tobago’s theatre landscape, Holder’s journey into acting began in the Methodist church.
“I used to love to act in the Sunday School plays at church. From there, I really grew to love the stage. It excited me.”
Holder quickly began acting in the church’s youth group, which, he said, always performed in drama, choir and choral speaking competitions across the island.
“So, it was something I started at a very young age.”
While he does not recall any particular experience that drew him to acting, Holder recalled watching actors in movies on television and “wanting to do it too."
“What I love about acting is the opportunity to become someone else, embodying a character and bringing it to life with authenticity.”
He went on, “When I am on stage, I feel in my element, excited. Creating memorable experiences excites me. Some people go into a shell when the stage lights come on but I live for it. I feel energised on the stage. I love taking the audience on a journey with the characters, making them feel the joy, sadness, anxieties, anger of the characters. I love when the audience becomes immersed in the world of the play.”
The third of five children, Holder lived the first three years of his life in Louis D’Or, on Tobago’s east side. The family then moved to Prospect on Orange Hill Road, near Scarborough.
He grew up on a farm and attended Scarborough Methodist and St Nicholas primary schools.
From there, Holder spent seven years at Bishop’s High School before entering UWI, St Augustine, Trinidad, in 2005, to pursue a double major in theatre arts and communication studies.
After university the actor worked in corporate communications for six years. He later spent five years in media before making the move into full-time acting with the TPAC, some months ago.
He said his love of the stage is matched only by his passion for TT’s culture, especially Carnival and its various facets.
“Carnival is actually my favourite time of the year. I love the ole time mas, J’Ouvert, fetes, Panorama, you name it. I love going the panyards and listening to the steelbands play.”
Holder said his love for Panorama started when he began working in the media.
“I was basically tasked with covering Carnival in Tobago. So from that, I actually grew a love for pan. I can’t play. Don’t ask me anything about playing pan but I love going to listen to Panorama preliminaries and covering the THA pan champs. I just find that when a Panorama band has clarity and they are well drilled it is a really amazing sound to hear in person.”
The actor is also an accomplished fire breather, a skill he learnt from his wife.
“She learnt it in Trinidad when she was attending UWI and when she came back over to Tobago she decided she wanted to teach other people how to breathe fire. So she taught me. I was actually one of her first students and I have been breathing fire ever since. Since covid19, I have not done it for a while but I still have the skills.”
Holder said while he has never played mas in a conventional band, he thoroughly enjoys J’Ouvert. His wife also has a J’Ouvert band which he plays with from time to time.
“I just absolutely love Carnival. It is the one time in the year that I actually get to free up and leh go and allow myself to be happy. Most of the year, I am just grinding, working and I take that Carnival time to just relax and try to have a good time. It is a powerful cultural experience. I would say it is one of the most powerful cultural experiences in the world.”
Holder said as an adult he has been acting for more than 15 years.
He performed on the opening night of the Tobago Heritage Festival in 2018 and 2019. Holder also did what he called a season of plays with the Tobago THETA Company; Eagles Wings and Eagles Wings, Who’s your boss with Ricia Paul, two Christian plays.
The performer said he has also acted in a number of short films, two of which made it to the TT Film Festival.
Holder regards Bitter Cassava as his biggest theatre accomplishment to date.
He said preparing for the role of Pa Cefus was very challenging.
“Our artistic director, Rayshawn Pierre-Kerr, demands excellence and is always urging us to dig deeper and constantly refine our characters. So, it was a constant searching for my character, constant work in understanding who he is, what drives him, what he desires. Constant work on creating the physical traits of Pa Cefus as well.”
In local theatre, Holder said he has always admired the work of Michael Cherrie, whose talents have been recognised abroad.
“I remember reading about him as a teenager and feeling pride.”
He also respects Anthony Joseph’s talents as an actor and producer in Men of Grey and Flight of the Ibis.
“Apart from them, I hold directors such as Louis Mc Williams, Zeno Obi Constance, Rawle Gibbons and Dr Lester Efebo Wilkinson in high regard.”
Holder has observed that interest in theatre in Tobago has not been “at its strongest” over the years.
However, he believes the TPAC, which was established in September 2019, is already having an impact on how Tobagonians and especially young people, view the performing arts.
“There are young people that are drawn to it but I think because there aren't many productions happening on the island that the level of interest isn't as high as it should be. But once quality productions take place regularly on the island, there will be a natural increase in interest.”
Does he believe enough is being done to promote theatre nationally?
“In past years, I would have said a resounding no, but since the creation of the Tobago Performing Arts Company, I genuinely believe that this is an opportunity for that to change and, as an island, we must all grasp it. TPAC can most definitely positively impact the theatre space in Tobago and nationally.
“I think there is a world of possibilities that Trinbagonians are not aware of that can be derived from theatre. There is an entire industry that can be tapped into and I don’t believe it is up to only the government or the THA. The private sector can also get involved and make the investments.”