Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
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 latest feature film, Pennies for the Boatman, screens this month at the Madrid International Film Festival, where it’s 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 rocky 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. He’s currently working on a documentary about Ota Benga, an African who was kidnapped and displayed at St. Louis’ 1904 World’s Fair.
Coker also runs the Africa World Documentary Film Festival, now in its sixth year, which travels from St. Louis to Alabama, Kansas, Barbados, Cameroon, London, 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 professor Tom McPhail, Coker’s department chair. Coker recently took Preemptive, his play about prejudice against Muslims, on a world tour that concluded in Nigeria with a red-carpet premiere. In attendance was Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who was Coker’s mentor at Obafemi Awolowo Universiy 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 program.” 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 professor Barbara Harbach. Booth! made its New York premiere at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in 2009. “Ni 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.” And he’s still going to keep telling St. Louis’ stories. “It’s a great place to work from,” he says. “For Pennies, we shot on a whole city block, and we just begged everybody to give us 30 minutes, and they cooperated,” he recalls. “They stood back, and neighbors would tell people, ‘Shh!’” He laughs. “That was nice.”