The dual life of Oliver: actor and judge
From Nigeria to Broadway fulfilling a soul’s desire
By DEBORAH A. MILES
There are more than a few twists to the story about Oliver Mbamara — an
administrative law judge and an actor — and how he got from Lagos, Nigeria to
His story begins at childhood, when Mbamara recognized and nurtured a deep
passion for theater arts.
“I performed in kindergarten concerts, high school comedy troupes and tapped
into many aspects of my own creativity as a young person,” he said. “Later, I
read my own poetry in front of capacity crowds.”
His dream was to major in theater arts. But his family wanted him to pursue a
career in law.
“This is not something I could have challenged. I had to accept my parents’
decision. I never lost my passion for the theater while I was studying law, but
our culture doesn’t allow you to feel bad about the choices our parents make for
us,” he said.
Mbamara followed his family’s wishes and graduated from the University of Lagos
Nigeria and the Nigerian Law School, and came to the U.S. in 1995.
“One thing lead to another, so I decided to stay,” he said. “New York City is
much like Lagos. Both cities have the same pace, cultural outlets, diversity.”
Nevertheless, it wasn't an easy transition.
Mbamara left a prestigious law firm in Lagos to find himself working as a home
health care aide for minimum wage.
“In Nigeria, I had my own office, people working for me. I was comfortably
positioned there,” he said. “Here, I was unable to practice law till I passed
the New York Bar examination. I was overqualified to work as a paralegal. There
were setbacks in getting my transcripts. I had always worked, so I trained to be
a home health aide. I had to go back to square one. It was a humbling
After getting through a maze of red tape and trips back to Nigeria for
paperwork, Mbamara passed the bar exam and began working as an administrative
law judge for the state Office of Temporary Disability Assistance. A member of
PEF Division 373, he works out of the Brooklyn office of administrative hearings
in Kings County.
Throughout his struggles to re-establish his legal career, his dramatic
ambitions kept stirring.
It didn’t take long for Mbamara to seize on acting opportunities in New York. He
landed the leading role in an off-Broadway dance drama called “Prisoner of the
And the entire experience of being an immigrant inspired him to refine his
talent for directing. He attended the Hollywood Film Institute where he earned a
certificate as an independent filmmaker.
One of his first independent films, “This America,” was made with Bethels
Agomuoh and Felix Nnorom, and was based partly on Mbamara’s emotional journey as
Lights, camera, action!
Now, on nights and weekends, Mbamara sheds the suit and tie, and transforms
himself into a character either on stage or in front of a camera.
“My extra hours mostly go into writing and entertaining. It is passion that
drives you. It is love for theater,” he said.
You may have seen him in the starring role as Uloko in the play “Wedlock of the
Gods,” an African take-off of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
Or perhaps you caught one of his plays, such as “The Flame of Love,” a musical
dance drama written for Broadway, or “The New Yam Bandit” — a play which
introduces early African culture to school children.
And his photo and an article ran in Crain’s New York Business in a cover story
called “Working Actors,” in March.
Also look for Mbamara in another independent film, “Slave Warrior,” which will
be released this fall.
Mbamara has a few mottos and guiding principles he likes to share:
“Do the best you can and be content with what comes through; Believe if you
will, but let your experience be your authority; and, Seek to know about life,
but begin the quest with yourself.”
Mbamara certainly has.