February 20, 2008

Nobel Prize winner Soyinka to speak at SIUC

by Andrea Hahn

Wole Soyinka

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Nobel Prize winner, former political prisoner, playwright, actor and poet – Wole Soyinka is all those things, and more. And on Feb. 28, he will visit Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Soyinka will share the story of his remarkable life during a free, public lecture beginning at 5 p.m. in SIUC Student Center Ballroom D. A reception follows.

Soyinka was born in 1934 in western Nigeria. He studied at Government College in Ibadan, Later, in 1973, he earned a doctorate from the University of Leeds. He was a dramaturgist at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1958 to 1959. He went back to Nigeria to study African drama, and taught at universities in Ibadan, Lagos and Ife. Since then, he has been a visiting professor at Cambridge, Sheffield and Yale universities. A prolific writer, poet and dramatist, Soyinka founded two theater companies, and has written more than 20 works so far. In 1986, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature at a time when, according to the Swedish Academy's press release, he was "in his prime as an author." His most recent publication is his 2006 autobiography, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir."

In addition to living in a world of letters, Soyinka was directly involved in the political upheaval during the civil war in Nigeria. In 1967, he was arrested and held as a political prisoner for nearly two years because he advocated for a cease-fire. He spent several years in exile after his release.

A broad cross-section of the SIUC community came together to sponsor the free lecture part of Soyinka's visit – the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, Department of Theater, the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Dean, College of Liberal Arts, Department of Speech Communication, University Honors Program, Black History Month Committee and Black American Studies Program.

"We look forward to hosting an enlightening, stimulating lecture by this exceptionally gifted, courageous playwright and political activist," Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said.

Soyinka's visit to SIUC coincides with the production of his play, "Death and the King's Horseman," first published in 1975, and a symposium focused on Wole Soyinka's life and work. Segun Ojewuyi, assistant professor in the Department of Theater, directs the play.

The symposium begins Feb. 28, with registration starting at 9 a.m. in the Student Center Auditorium. The symposium is free to SIUC students, faculty and staff. There is a charge for non-SIUC-affiliates. Call the Division of Continuing Education at 618/536-7751 for details or visit www.dce.siu.edu and follow the links through conferences.

Ojewuyi said the Soyinka Symposium is one way to share Soyinka with Southern Illinois.

"As the world continues to change, people glibly talk about a 'global village,'" he said. "But there has always been a global world of ideas. The most important thing about Soyinka is that he is not just a scholar or a poet or a playwright, though he is all of those things. He is a human rights activist. He has gone beyond the boundaries most of us hold dear. Our University is a research institution and it is designed for these kinds of forums, for ideas to be contested, to be shared and maybe for new ideas to be born."

The two-day symposium features three keynote speakers. On Feb. 28, Biodun Jeyifo, an expert on African drama generally and Soyinka particularly, speaks at 10:30 a.m. Jeyifo is professor of African-American studies at Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His topic is, "Forget the Muse, Think Only of the Subject."

Gary Younge, a columnist for the British newspaper, "The Guardian" and that paper's New York correspondent, speaks at 10 a.m. on Feb. 29. He will talk about "Writing Wrongs: the U.S. Media and the War on Terror."

Author and social justice advocate Randall Robinson speaks at 2 p.m. on Feb. 29 about "The Impact of Race: Africa and the World."

Besides the keynote speakers, the symposium offers question and answer periods, panel discussions with experts from nearly a dozen universities in addition to experts here at SIUC, and screenings of documentary films. Ojewuyi convened the symposium with assistance from faculty in Black American Studies, the theater and English departments and the Global Media Research Center.

The play, "Death and the King's Horsemen," is a joint venture of the St. Louis Black Repertory Theater and the SIUC Theater Department. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 through March 1 and at 2 p.m. on March 2 at McLeod Theater.

Tickets for the play are $15 for adults, $12 for senior citizens and $6 for students. Tickets are available from the McLeod Theatre Box Office at 618/453-3001. Box-office hours are noon to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and one hour before each performance.

The play is one of Soyinka's greatest and most famous works. Based on a true story, the play describes the events and aftermath when British colonial authorities prevent the spiritually significant ritual suicide of a deceased chieftain's horseman. The play is mysterious, yet said to be one of Soyinka's more accessible plays, touching as it does on such basic human problems as the meaning of life, of death and of religion.

Ojewuyi said the cooperation with the professional repertory group presents a unique opportunity for SIUC theater students to work with professionals and to play to an audience in St. Louis that expects professionalism. The cast includes members of the repertory theatre group and SIUC students. The play runs at the St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre's main stage at the Grandel Theatre from March 19 through April 13. For more information, visit www.theblackrep.org.

Ojewuyi, commenting on the series of events linked to Soyinka's appearance at the University, said, "For me, as a faculty, this has been a test. The intellectual interest shown so far – this is a University that has a good sense of its mission. It is a healthy and nurturing environment."