…I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life. To portray a character through music, through acting that the audience understands. Yeah. That’s it!
-Eyakeno Ekpo who plays Seaweed in “Hairspray!”
It’s a joy to watch the ensemble members as much as the main characters in the Upper Darby Summer Stage production of “Hairspray!” Every individual on stage proves to be an animated and skilled performer. Each one has a story about how he or she came to perform at Summer Stage.
A relative newcomer to Summer Stage, twenty year-old Eyakeno Ekpo, plays the part of Seaweed. When Seaweed introduces the smitten Penny to his mother and he starts to move in the soulful “Run and Tell That,” anyone in the audience can appreciate his early love for Michael Jackson.
Eyakeno confesses that as a young boy he was the one at family weddings who would be out on the dance floor when no one else was dancing, performing the Moon Walk like his idol at the time. “I was a born performer. I didn’t know what to do with that. And then I discovered musical theater.”
He first caught “the bug” in 7th grade when he was in the ensemble in “Music Man.” “I had one line,” he said, “The director said to make it my own.” Eyakeno studied and practiced the line up and down, and every which way to make sure he delivered it perfectly.
Not too long before his experience in middle school, Eyakeno and his family – his mother, father, brother and sister – moved 5,000 miles from Nigeria in order to follow their dream of a better life in the United States. They settled in Upper Darby to be close to other family members. It was March 2003 and he remembers thinking, “Why is it SO cold here? I had never been so cold in my life! I still don’t like the cold!”
New to life in the United States and new to middle school, he wasn’t sure where he fit in. “It was a huge transition, mentally,” as he reflected back on that time in his life. “Not knowing people around us, trying to make new friends.”
And then he found the theater program. “When I started getting involved in theater productions, it was awkward at first because I didn’t know anybody. I remember looking around at everybody hugging one another and I would kind of stand there. But after a couple of rehearsals, out of nowhere, it just happened. I felt like I was one of them. I don’t even know when the transition happened, it just happened.”
Eyakeno was involved in most every school production at Drexel Hill Middle School and at Upper Darby High School since that time. Eyakeno’s first Mainstage show at Upper Darby Summer Stage was “West Side Story.” He was a Shark. “That was so cool about doing ‘West Side Story,’ coming into the place and the people just helping one another and working together, and being able to talk to one another, even though we didn’t know one another that well. That was huge.”
The director of “West Side Story,” Matthew Cloran, was supportive of Eyakeno as he was learning the craft of character development. “He found ways for us to develop a hatred for each other,” said Eyakeno. “For example, he organized a baseball game, the Jets against the Sharks. We butted heads with one another and developed a bitterness towards one another. Through that and other ways, he taught us to experience the emotion, not just go through the motions. It felt real, like I was in a gang.”
He enjoyed the experience so much that he wants perform, act and dance as a profession. “I want everything!” he exclaims with enthusiasm. His family is very supportive, but they also recognize it will be a difficult path to pursue. “My mother has been a huge help in this decision to pursue acting and performing. And I’m very grateful.”
Each weekday, prior to coming to rehearsals for “Hairspray” which begin each weeknight at 7:00pm and end at 10:30pm, Eyakeno works full-time and works during the weekends. He works as a camp counselor and then as a caterer for various events. He truly enjoys working with the kids. “It’s such a great feeling to have that kind of connection with little kids. I walk down the street and they wave at me, ‘Hi, Mr. E!’”
In addition to the full time work schedule and nighttime rehearsals for “Hairspray,” he is attending Community College of Philadelphia. The full schedule doesn’t faze him. “I want to experience everything so that I’m able to know what I really want.”
When asked what he’d be doing if not for the theater. “If I didn’t have theater I really don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d be lazy on the couch, just watching TV.” But that’s not an option for Eyakeno.
He’s very focused right now on dedicating his life to theater. “When I am performing on the stage, it’s like all of that hard work, all of those times spent reading the script, going over the dance moves – it’s like saying to everyone in the audience, ‘Hey everybody, this is what we’ve come up with.’ And for them to be able to understand the message we want to give to them, that they’re receiving.”
For Eyakeno, performing is one of the best ways he can give of himself. “It gives me a sense of accomplishment, being able to show off our hard work. And then hearing the response from the audience, their applause when my hands are up and everyone is standing on their feet in the audience – that makes me feel like I’ve done my job, and that’s what keeps me coming back. And I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life. To portray a character through music, through acting that the audience understands. Yeah. That’s it!”