Nigerian native’s summer successes range from cinema to theater
On a Thursday night in July, Niyi Coker touched down at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, having just completed a successful three-continent tour of his latest play, “Preemptive.” He drove straight to the Tivoli Theatre in University City, Mo., for the second ever screening of his new film, “Pennies for the Boatman,” at the St. Louis Filmmaker Showcase. That same night, it was announced that Cinema St. Louis had selected the movie to be screened at the 19th annual Stella Artois St. Louis International Film Festival in November.
It was that kind of summer for the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of African/African-American Studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. He was busy. And everywhere.
Then again, the native Nigerian has no shortage of projects that keep him on the move.
He’s written plays, books and adapted screenplays. He’s directed award-winning documentaries (“Black Studies USA” won best short doc at the 2005 Berlin Black Film Festival) and more than 50 major stage productions. He’s served as the director of professional theater companies in Nigeria, Sweden and New York. He’s worked with winners of Nobel Prizes, Academy Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. He oversees documentary and playwriting festivals. He teaches.
“Dr. Coker is a rare academic who has combined being a world class writer/producer/director along with a gift for changing students’ lives for the better,” said Tom Mcphail, chair of the Department of Theater, Dance and Media Studies at UMSL. “He is also the best possible role model and mentor for junior faculty.”
Right now, Coker is at the University of Ghana in Legon. He’s taken a class there for the semester through a UMSL Center for International Studies program. While there, he’ll also direct two plays.
“Overwhelming,” Coker said. He’s not talking about his schedule. He’s talking about the responses to his new play and movie. And he sounded easygoing, jovial, modest. He usually does.
“It was just simply overwhelming,” Coker said again. “They were very good reactions. It’s good validation – very good validation.”
“Pennies for the Boatman” is an adaptation of St. Louis playwright Mario Farwell’s “The Seamstress of St. Francis Street.” Farwell’s play won the first E. Desmond Lee African-Americna Playwriting Competition, which included a UMSL production of the film as part of the prize. The dramatic film, set in north St. Louis during the summer of 1958, is about a stormy relationship between two sisters. In addition to the local international festival, Coker plans to submit the film to international festivals in Europe.
He described “Preemptive” as a play that looks at religious conflicts. One main character is a Muslim, the other a Christian. The play, set in New York City, ends in tragic consequences with one of the character’s accidental deaths. Coker said he sought to examine the sources and causes xenophobia in America. “Preemptive” toured Barbados, Bermuda, Ghana and Great Britain this summer. It was written about extensively in several African Caribbean publications and featured on the BBC arts program “The Strand.” Coker hopes to stage the play locally soon, perhaps at UMSL.
Growing up in Nigeria, Coker can’t remember a source for his theater passion. It’s just what he always wanted to do, he said. He frequently wrote, but opted to focus on acting as an undergraduate at the University of Ife in Nigeria. While at the university, he began to take his writing more seriously after finally drafting a piece he felt was good enough to be staged. The play was well-received.
“Awesome,” Coker said of that reaction. “There’s no confidence booster greater than when you realize you might have something special because this is not something that everybody can do.”
And for Coker, there was no looking back.
He came to the U.S. to study at Brooklyn College in New York with F. Murray Abrahams, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the film “Amadeus.”
Coker, who earned an MFA in directing from Brooklyn College, later filmed his first movie, “Happy Birthday Jerome,” in New York. He marveled at the cost differences between that and “Pennies for the Boatman,” which was shot on location in north St. Louis.
“We couldn’t have done the film in New York City or Los Angeles without incurring three or four times the cost to get it done,” Coker said. “In St. Louis, I had access to all the equipment, production manpower and actors I would there. It makes it a very unique place to be able to spend less without compromising the quality of the work.”
Despite all he’s accomplished, Coker continues to learn. For “Preemptive,” he served only as playwright, handing the director reins over to someone else.
“As a writer, it allowed me to step back and take a look at what worked and what didn’t work,” he said.
Coker also points out that he’s only one part of both the play and movie. UMSL faculty and students contributed to both. Coker estimates about 80 percent of the crew that shot “Pennies for the Boatman” had ties to the university, including Jim Abernathy and Marcel Bechtoldt in Information Technology Services. The movie received funding from E. Desmond Lee, the College of Fine Arts and Communication and the Office of Research Administration.
And theater faculty members lent a hand on “Preemptive.” Felia Davenport designed costumes and Glen Anderson designed the lighting.
“They were all very gracious with their time and support,” Coker said. “The university has such a great community of artists and art enthusiasts. Without them, both productions wouldn’t have turned out as well as they did.”
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