Niyi Coker will produce musical of Miriam Makeba in South Africa

Niyi Coker, E. Desmond Lee Professor of African/African American Studies at UMSL

UMSL Professor Niyi Coker will produce a musical based on the life of Miriam Makeba at the University of Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by August Jennewein)

A scholar from the University of Missouri–St. Louis will produce an original musical about a legendary African songstress thanks to a grant from Carnegie Corporation.

Niyi Coker, the E. Desmond Lee Professor of African/African-American Studies in the Department of Theatre at UMSL, will produce “Zenzi,” a biography of Miriam Makeba, during a fellowship at the University of the Western Cape, which has a partnership with the University of Missouri System. Coker will start working on the project in June in Cape Town, South Africa.

Makeba was a South African singer who was banished from her country in the late 1950s. She arrived in the U.S. after receiving sponsorship from Harry Belafonte and became so popular that she even performed for President John F. Kennedy. Her popularity waned after her marriage to Black Panthers leader Stokely Carmichael, and she returned to Africa to live in Guinea. She returned to South Africa in 1990 after the end of apartheid and with the personal invitation of Nelson Mandela.

“She’s one of those icons who is a very influential figure when talking about Africa and African music,” Coker said of Makeba, also known as Mama Africa. “Her works have touched a universal chord and provided a universal message.”

“Zenzi” is possible due to Coker receiving a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship. The Carnegie Corporation of New York funds the fellowship administered by the Institute of International Education and Quinnipiac University. The program promotes engagement between scholars born in Africa and living in the United States or Canada and scholars in Africa.

“This Carnegie Fellowship is certainly the kind of endorsement this project needs to move it forward,” Coker said.  “I am grateful that we prevailed in the grant competition and now look forward to the creative work of bringing this production to life and fruition.”

Coker will work on the musical this summer and will return to South Africa in December for further preparations and until the play debuts in February. The production will feature students from the university as well as professional actors, directors, dancers and musicians from the Cape Town area.

Eventually, Coker hopes to receive funding to produce the play at UMSL.

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