A Teacher as a Film Maker

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Segun James

Ordinarily, it would be correct to say that Niyi Coker’s world revolves around teaching, a vocation he embarked upon since graduating from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in 1983.

But Coker is not your ordinary teacher. He is an actor, director, producer and playwright, whose works have been produced in so many countries including the United States of America (USA) where he has been a teacher of Theatre Arts in various universities since 1990, England, South Africa, Ghana, Cameroon, Jamaica, Canada, Nigeria and so many other countries around the world where his works have played to standing ovation.

These days, this former lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt is more known as an award winning film maker whose works have won awards in places such as Madrid and the most glamorous place for any film maker – Hollywood. This is no mean feat for an African and a black man given the fact that everything about Hollywood is money and money alone.

In Hollywood, the saying is that there is no business like show business. Filmmaking can be so dramatic. Considering that it’s an industry fully stocked with outsize characters, glamorous scenery, and more than its share of obvious villains. Here media and film moguls would only invest their money on a sure bet. Coker is a sure bet.

His latest film: “Ota Benga: Human at the Zoo,” revolves round how the west viewed Africans up to the turn of the last century. According to him, “the documentary has taken me to Oxford, to Brussels, to Cameroon and to the pygmy people. Ota Benga was a guy from the Congo – a pygmy – who was brought to the St. Louis World’s Fair at Forest Park in 1904. And at the end of the World’s Fair, he was displayed at the Bronx Zoo. He was right in there with the monkeys and the baboons, and people actually came to see him.

Eventually he was released and sent to Lynchburg, Va., to the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. It was there where he took his life when he realized he wasn’t going to go back to the Congo.”

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Adeniyi A. Coker Jr. (a.k.a. ’Niyi) wasn’t interested in becoming a lawyer like his father. Instead, he wrote plays. “If you ask any of my high-school classmates; that’s what they remember me for,” says Coker. “I always had a fresh play every week.” He corralled his drama club to put on the plays, often serving as playwright, actor, and director for a single show.

“He’s really like a natural-born producer,” says friend Awam Amkpa, who teaches drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In addition to producing films, Coker is an internationally known playwright, director, and the E. Desmond Lee Professor in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Media Studies at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

His feature film,’ Pennies for the Boatman’, screened at the Madrid International Film Festival, where it was nominated for four awards, including Best Director and Best Film of the Festival. It’s also been an official selection of the St. Louis International Film Festival and London’s ‘I Will Tell International Film Festival’.

“He’ll be someone our kids read about,” says Andrea Purnell, who played Camilla Jackson in Pennies. “He’s one of the best directors I’ve ever had.” Coker adapted the film from Mario Farwell’s play ‘The Seamstress of St. Francis Street’, set in north St. Louis in 1958.

Helen Wilcox, a morally upright seamstress, has a rock relationship with her sister Camilla, who left to become a performer in New York. When Camilla returns, she immediately stirs up trouble, flirting with Helen’s husband and dredging up secrets that threaten to destroy the family. “You don’t get a lot of films about St. Louis,” explains Coker, who came to St. Louis in 2005 and immediately became interested in telling stories about his adopted hometown.

Coker also runs the Africa World Documentary Film Festival, now in its 10th year, which travels from St. Louis to Alabama, Kansas, Barbados, Cameroon, London, South Africa and Nigeria. And he organizes the E. Desmond Lee Playwriting Competition, teaches classes at UM–St. Louis, and directs and writes plays.

“We’re lucky to have him,” says Prof. Tom McPhail, Coker’s department chair. Coker took ‘Preemptive’, his play about prejudice against Muslims, on a world tour that concluded in Nigeria with a red-carpet premiere in 2012.

In attendance was Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who was Coker’s teacher and mentor at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Coker studied acting at a time before Nigeria’s Nollywood was the second largest film industry in the world after Bollywood, and drama wasn’t an accepted major.

“One of my classmates said his father showed him the newspaper and turned to the classifieds and said, ‘Where does it say drama?’” Coker recalls. “He enrolled in the law programme.” Coker’s uncle was the popular Nigerian playwright Ola Rotimi, so his parents let him pursue acting.

Coker then enrolled at Brooklyn College, where he earned an MFA in directing. “I received a great education on how to direct,” says Coker. “But I didn’t know a lot about black drama, people like Charles Fuller, The Negro Ensemble Company, and the National Black Theatre, and so for me, there was a cultural void in America.”

He filled that void by studying at Temple University- when he graduated in 1991, he was the first person in America to earn a Ph.D. in African-American studies. His degree, though, sparked controversy. Some in academe called it irrelevant. “I didn’t understand how anybody would see the study of African people as inferior or unnecessary,”

Coker recalls. “I think it made me even more determined to say, ‘I think there is a lot of work to be done in this area.”

Though he was more interested in theater, he went to three universities to start or head up their African-American studies departments: the University of Wyoming, Eastern Illinois University, and The University of Alabama at Birmingham. He also made a documentary, Black Studies, USA, about the field’s history. Coker believes what sets him apart as a director is his attention to detail.

“I explore every strand, every detail of a text and a script to make sure there are multiple layers of meaning and significance,” he explains. He spent a year, for instance, researching the life of Edwin Booth, a noted actor whose brother John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, before writing the book for a musical composed by fellow UM – St. Louis, Prof. Barbara Harbach.

Booth! made its New York premiere at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in 2009. “Niyi never misses an opportunity to teach you something about someone in history,” Purnell says. “The teacher just never turns off in him.”

As someone who’s spent his life following his passions instead of doing the expected, Coker isn’t worried about the outcome at the Madrid film festival. “To be nominated in four categories is excellent,” he says. “It shows you you’re on the right path.”

Niyi Coker, Jr. is the E. Desmond Lee Distinguished Professor of Theatre and Media Studies at the University of Missouri, Saint Louis. He has directed over 50 major stage productions around the world. He is the founding artistic director of the African Arts Ensemble in NYC, and has served as Artistic Director-in-Residence for several theatre companies ranging from the National Theater of Nigeria; K3 Theatre in Malmo, Sweden; Black Box Theatre in Hamilton, Bermuda.

He received a British Council commission to write and direct, “Endangered Species”, which toured Great Britain in 1995. In 2010 his play “Preemptive” opened at the Shaw Theatre in London, England and was covered by BBC Strand in England. The production went on to tour in the Caribbean and West Africa.

His film credits include; “The Black 14” for FERPA PBS in 1995. “Black Studies USA”, received the Silver Remi Award at the Houston International Film Festival, and was also a finalist at the 2007 Hollywood Black Film Festival.

His narrative feature “Pennies for the Boatman,” won Best Screenplay at the 2012 Madrid International Film Festival and was a finalist for Best Director and Best Film. His latest documentary film is “Ota Benga: Human at the Zoo”.

He is author of two books and several articles. He received the MFA in Directing from Brooklyn College in New York City, and Ph.D from Temple University in Philadelphia.