Professor Niyi Coker is the E. Desmond Lee Distinguished Professor of Theatre and Media Studies at the University of Missouri, Saint Louis, U.S. He has directed over 50 major stage productions around the world; he’s a board member of International Documentary Film Festival (iREP). He is the founding Artistic Director of African Arts Ensemble in New York City, and has served as Artistic Director-in-Residence for several theatre companies, including National Theatre, Lagos. In this online interview with The Guardian’s MARGARET MWANTOK, Coker speaks about the challenges of documentary filmmaking in Nigeria, as well as theatre performances, and regrets to have left Nigeria in the past 33 years.
Do you have any plans to have your latest stage production – the musical on Miriam Makeba staged in Nigeria?
Being on the board of IREP is a rare honour and one for which I am quite excited. It affords me the opportunity to, not only be part of a thriving “edutainment” enterprise, but to be able to contribute some expertise in a meaningful way. Largely, it allows me to stay connected to the documentary film industry in Nigeria. This is an opportunity that I would not have had otherwise. Being on the board allows me to have a stronger grasp on making tangibles and learning from a closer proximity and not simply from online and Internet sources.
The Mama Africa cast is presently on a break. It’s quite a large company with over 40 members. There are plans underway to stage the production in Nigeria, which is being handled by ZMirage. The group is anxiously waiting to undertake the Nigerian tour, after which we would embark on several countries in Europe and then an eventual return to the United States by 2018.
Should we expect a similar treatment like you did with Fela and his mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti or any legendary hero?
It’s quite funny that you have asked that question. Fela was the initial project that I embarked on in 1998. I do recall that Fela’s passing away had quite an impact on those of us, who admired his work and the genius that was Fela. That year, I recall introducing a graduate course in “African Music and Social Change” at the university, with the main agenda on the syllabus being an analysis of the music of Fela Kuti.
To get the class to understand this perspective, we had carried out an analysis of Bob Marley and examined the social, political and cultural changes Marley had advocated through music and lifestyle. At that time, Marley was more accessible than Fela, because Jamaica has a closer proximity in distance and culture to the United States than Nigeria. What was certainly more surprising to me at the end of the year was that my students came to develop more of an appreciation for Fela, and thought that he had made more of an impact than any other musician in social change, fighting the corrupt and military forces that he was subjected to deal with.
My work in creating and researching material for the course over two years actually led to first, a screen play, and then a musical script for which I had worked tirelessly to secure grand rights unsuccessfully. I even arranged meetings in Atlanta with Femi Kuti in 2001 to discuss moving the ball forward also unsuccessfully.
The walls I was running into in attempts to execute the musical, and then the film, ultimately led to simply getting the book published in 2004, so I could move on to other projects. The book was originally released in English and then subsequently translated and released in Korean, Japanese, German and French. A few years later, Bill T. Jones would be successful in acquiring the grand rights to the musical, right here in New York City! A few train stops from my home. I had to laugh at myself! Here I was trying to secure rights from Lagos? Anyway, I was glad that someone with the means and the support was finally doing it and paying homage to a great musician.
There is a big story on Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti. I believe if it’s well written and directed, it could surpass the Fela story. Think about it. First, there are not a lot of stories about African women and their bravery. She ran against the grain and norms of a sexist society, when it was not fashionable to do so. She paid a trip for her son to go behind the iron curtain and to get a first-hand glimpse and experience with Communism, while he was still a student in the West. This is one woman that transcended her time and was so iconoclastic that she encouraged her son to live a life and play music that was “contrary and controversial”. At a time when use of marijuana was a guaranteed life sentence at best and incurred the death penalty at the extreme: she smuggled spinach meals to feed her son to destroy and eradicate any evidence in his feces. She would ultimately die at the hands of the government forces targeting her son. What kind of cowardly government sanctions throwing a septuagenarian out of a second-floor window?
As I have argued in my book on Fela: it was from this point on that he readily embraced death, lost all fear and threw caution to the wind. From here onwards, he was going full steam into the end of the line. The guilt of having his mother in residence at his abode and feeling somewhat responsible for her demise never abandoned his psyche. The government forces wanted him, but got to his mother in his stead! What an awful burden he had to live with.
At this moment in time, I look forward to the experience of getting Mama Africa to Nigeria from South Africa. I believe the production is needed now more than ever in light of the growing tensions experienced between both nations. A cultural offering as a reminder of our common cause and shared humanity is undoubtedly a great start and recipe.
The just-concluded IREP festival was the sixth, the idea being to promote and encourage documentary filmmaking in Nigeria and Africa. As someone who is involved in the festival, how would you assess the state of documentary filmmaking in Nigeria and Africa?
Africans have not yet tapped the full potential of telling their own story utilising the documentary film medium. Expressing and recording the African experience, ranging from the historical to the cultural and social realities, remains an under-explored minefield. The raw materials to express these experiences are quite latent but there appears to be more of an interest in working on the fictional and narrative.
The irony is that any avenues for rectifying the images of Africa and rescuing it from the damages it has incurred over the previous centuries could actually lie in the field of documentary film work. Documentary by its nature is not fiction; it recounts and distillates previous, present circumstances and possibly even predicts future occurrences. It is pertinent to understand that the damages, which the African image has incurred, came primarily through documentary films produced by early European documentary filmmakers.
The Lumiere brothers in France dispatched filmmakers around to parts of Africa with cameras to shoot what came to be known as ethnographic films. Prominent people at social gatherings in Europe viewed these films in influential circles. It is from these documentary films that several people received their mis-education about Africa. Let’s not forget that this was also a period, when Africa was under colonisation and when policies were being made in Europe that directly affected Africa. Several of these viewers had never been to Africa or even had any intent of setting foot on the continent. It’s not shocking that both Rider Haggard and Josef Conrad were schooled on these ethnographic films, which inspired the writing of their blatantly racist novels on Africa, which very quickly became impactful films that have framed the western image and perception about Africa for decades now.
The sad thing is that Africans themselves have come to believe in the conclusions of these ethnographic films, as they are utilised in schools. Documentary films made by Africans, which would define their own cosmology and realities, become a corrective for this and future generations. Documentary films challenge the status quo and the prevalent thought. Some of the subject matter will be quite uncomfortable but that is where great documentary films must go, so that there is a renaissance of thought.
The question is not technical knowledge for filmmaking. That is already inherent in Nigeria as witnessed from the amount of work that comes out of the Nigerian video industry. Documentary films would require detailed research, longer range planning and verification of the facts.
Many argue that documentaries are not being made in Nigeria because there is no market for it and so on. Do you think that is the real situation?
True, documentary films do not lend themselves to commercialisation as easily as the fictional and narrative. For some of the reasons I have enumerated above, the documentary cannot be commercial as it focuses more on educational aspects before it entertains and, in some cases, it can actually combine both. A good documentary forces discussion and even allows viewers to reconsider preconceived perceptions on different subject matters. These re-evaluations allow a society to forge ahead and understand the perspectives of others they might otherwise not have been privy to. It is a huge error to calculate the impact of a documentary in dollars and cents. Documentary films contribute to the intellectual growth of a society within and well beyond its confines.
What, for example, would the impact of a documentary in Nigeria on Escravos mean to the national psyche? This is an island city located in the Niger Delta, where the nation derives a huge amount of its national resource. This island town does have inhabitants, who were born there and have lived there for decades. Escravos is a Portuguese word, which translated to English means Slaves. With little in-depth research, it informs us instantly that the Portuguese were once there, just as they were in Lagos. Just as they named a place referred to as Eko by its indigenes as Lagos, they also named this location Escravos (Slaves)—- certainly because of the human exploitation they derived from it.
But why has this name persisted? Why, since the independence of Nigeria, has this name not been changed? What does this say about other altered names and previously named locations in Nigeria and Africa? You see, more than ever, Nigeria is in a fight for the intellectual reassessment of its political, social, cultural and certainly religious values. Documentary filmmakers cannot sit on the fence. They have a duty to become advocates in this total assessment and re-evaluation.
You have directed over 50 stage plays, with some having even toured extensively like Preemptive. Now, you are working on a documentary after your narrative feature, Pennies for the Boatman and Black 14. How far have you gone with the documentary on Ota Benga?
Ota Benga – Human at the Zoo is actually completed and received its premiere at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC in November 2015. It has since moved on for me to win Best Director of a Documentary at the 2016 London International Film Festival in the U.K., and Best Foreign Documentary at the 2016 Nice International Film Festival in France.
What baffles several people, who viewed the documentary, is that they cannot come to terms with the fact that (Ota Benga), an African, was actually housed with primates at the Bronx Zoo in the 20th century in eugenic experiments to determine the biological proximity of Africans to the Apes. As a documentary filmmaker and an academic, it was essential for me that people understand that skewered racial categories did not just spring out of a cold winter night. These were notions that were written and put to practice.
You had your first degree in Ife and you have been shuttling Nigeria and the U.S., what is your assessment of the present state of theatre scholarship in Nigeria? As compared to your years here, would you say enough is being done?
I was a Guest Director in Residence at the National Troupe in 2004. It was after this period of rehearsals that I planned a tour of the U.S. for the National troupe in 2005. Unfortunately, I must confess that having been away from the Nigerian theatre scene for three decades, I have not been as informed as I should be. By this, I mean that I have retained my knowledge of the Nigerian Theatre luminaries (and their writing) Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Femi Osofisan, Zulu Sofola, Akin Isola, Femi Euba, etc.
Due to the long absence, I have not been privileged to follow younger writers; I’m sure there are, or their production styles. Not for lack of trying but as you know, one has to see an actual production to properly assess any work. It appears to me from a distance that Nollywood probably subsumed the theatre and might even have created challenges with audience attendance now that people could easily buy DVDs and watch them in the confines of their homes as opposed to going to the theatre for the evening. I recall reading this in an article some place about a decade or more now.
Other than my experience over that four-week period in rehearsals in 2004 at the National Troupe, I am sorry to say I have not attended a play in Nigeria since leaving 33 years ago. Not for not wanting to, but sadly most of my visits have been limited to seven – 10-day periods with two or three-year intervals.
Are you happy with the developments in these industries?
The film industry has, in many obvious ways, eclipsed the theatre and there are several factors why this has occurred. Not reasonable and not rational but it has occurred. I do predict that at some point as the video and film industry grows, there will be a sudden recognition of the need to return to the theatre to train and educate the on-screen talent so that they can become universally competitive. There is no substitution for poorly trained actors, directors and writers.
The study of the arts of theatre is the foundation on which film on-screen talent is dependent. It is growing in Nigeria, and we witness the growing pains. But certainly more can be done. The theatre needs proper training and a stronger financial investment in Film science and technology. No short cuts.
You have spent quite a long time outside Nigeria, educating others. Is there any plan of moving back to the country?
At this point, I have lived and worked in the U.S. for 33 years. I was 21 when I left Nigeria. On the surface, it doesn’t appear like such a long time ago until I stop to really think about it.
In the early part of 2000, yes, I did flirt with the possibility of a return, through a Ford Foundation support and work with the National Troupe, but the stars did not align in that direction. After a few decades, and wrestling with the definition of home, I’ve concluded that I am best suited to be where I can do the best work and where I am most effective.
I come across several students here in the U.S., who have graduated from theatre schools in Nigeria. They are either here trying to pursue graduate degrees in theatre or in other disciplines. As I listen to their experiences in Nigeria as students of theatre, I tell them how I believe that those of us who studied theatre at Nigerian universities before 1984 probably had the best of everything! We were blessed with the finest teachers, abundant resources and ultimately a top ranked quality education.
The proof is the ease with which those of us that made decisions to leave went through graduate programmes here in the United States with the least academic difficulty. Our preparation was the utmost. I witness the present generation of graduates from Nigeria here in the U.S. struggle to get through basic courses here at my university and a few other schools in the vicinity. The one regret I have is the inability to return to classrooms in Nigeria to groom young minds or to give back to the theatre and film scenes. I do hope that my work and mentoring of Nigerian students here at the university can account in some way as trying to pay back for the great foundation I received at Ife. Additionally, I do frequent stints of theatre work and teaching in Cape Town, South Africa, courtesy of the Carnegie Foundation, as much and as often as possible.