Babatunde, Obba 19(?)(?)–
Obba Babatunde 19(?)(?)–
As an actor, dancer, and choreographer, Obba Babatunde is known as a remarkably versatile performer who has an almost chameleon-like ability to portray a vast array of characters. His acting, dancing, and singing talents have made Babatunde a performer in high demand, with roles on stage, film and even the small screen.
Born in Jamaica, New York, Babatunde has performed in one way or another since the age of six. As a young boy, he loved entertaining, and often staged shows for his family, singing, dancing, and acting. His name, Obba, means “King” in Nigeria, while his surname Babatunde means, “the spirit of the grandfather returned in the child.” Interestingly, Babatunde’s great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and his son were all born on the same day as the actor himself. In an effort to sum up the many interesting facts and events of his life, Babatunde, in the midst of his career, wrote his own one man show Obba In Concert.
In addition to his abilities as an actor, Babatunde is also a self-taught musician. After teaching himself the trumpet, Babatunde made his professional musical debut, at the age of fourteen, with the Metropolitan Brass Ensemble, also touring the West Indies with this group. Babatunde then learned to play West African percussion instruments, an encounter that led him to develop a deep interest in West African folklore. He went on to gain an impressive expertise in the field, becoming a consultant on West African folklore, and going on to work with several West African ballet companies. Eventually, he formed his own dance company, the International African American Ballet.
Babatunde graduated from Brooklyn College, after which he, along with his brother, began working as a teacher and administrator at the Harriet Tubman School, a private school for children of color. During his years as a teacher, Babatunde appeared in off-off Broadway and off Broadway shows. He also worked as a voice-over artist for television commercials. As his theater commitments became more demanding, it became difficult for Babatunde to balance his teaching job with his acting career. In 1976 he joined a touring company of Guys and Dolls, starring Leslie Uggams and Richard Roundtree. He regards his role in this production as one of his first major breaks. The next year, he made his film debut in Short Eyes, a prison drama. In 1977 and 1978
Born Obba Babatunde in Jamaica, New York. Education Brooklyn College.
Career: Actor, singer, choreographer and dancer. Worked previously as teacher at Harriet Tubman School.
Babatunde had a supporting role in the Broadway musical, Timbuktu, starring Eartha Kitt. His role, Chakaba, required him to walk on stilts, and brought him considerable critical acclaim. After finishing up Timbuktu, Babatunde was a featured performer in Liza Minelli’s world tour. All these performances and their success brought Babatunde critical praise and recognition, prompting him to give up teaching and pursue acting on a full time basis.
Critics and audiences have warmly received many Babatunde’s performances, including his role as C. C. White in the original production of Dreamgirls, his portrayal of Jelly Roll Morton in the world premiere of Jelly’s Last Jam, and his appearance as attorney Rusty Bennett on the soap opera All My Children. During these years, he was also a stand-by for Ben Vereen in Hal Prince’s Grind —Babatunde suddenly got the opportunity to fill in for Vereen during a Saturday matinee that was already in progress. Although he had not had the opportunity to rehearse with the full company, Babatunde’s performance was so polished that he received a standing ovation. From then on, Babatunde completed the run of the show. In another display of artistic versatility, Babatunde appeared as a dancer in Baryshnikov on Broadway in 1980, an engagement that led to his role in Dreamgirls.
In addition to his stage work, Babtunde has appeared in several blockbuster films including, Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. He also starred in the highly acclaimed HBO movies Miss Evers’ Boys and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Babatunde’s television appearances include roles in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Chicago Hope, and Dawson’s Creek.
Babatunde has acknowledged the late Sammy Davis Jr. as his thespian muse. In turn, Davis, after watching Babatunde’s Obba in Concert, called him a “bitch on wheels.” In an interview with Shelby J. Jones for www.blackfilms.com, Babatunde declared, “I would say that I am cut from the same cloth as many of the entertainers I grew up watching. Great talents like Sammy Davis, Jr.—a man who did it all and did it all great (singing, dancing, and acting) giving a great deal of focus to detail in each area of the craft. He mastered all that he set out to do through study, practice, and dedication to the art form.” Babatunde also gives Davis credit for opening the door in creating opportunities for African-American performers, openly admitting that he is one the direct beneficiaries of Davis’s pioneering efforts. Like Davis, Babatunde enjoys all aspects of his craft, enjoying working in the limelight, while appreciating the talent behind-the-scenes as well. For example, in his role as narrator and fellow prison inmate in Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, his character aged forty years over the course of the story. Babatunde was thrilled to be working directly with Academy award-winning make-up artist, Rick Baker.
In addition to his acting and singing career, Babatunde devotes much of his time to various charities that benefit children and support animal rights. When off stage, Babatunde, who lives on a ranch, loves to spend time with his horses and enjoys participating in Bill Picket’s All Black Rodeo, an organization that endorses kind treatment of rodeo animals.
—Christine Miner Minderovic
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