Charles Etubiebi’s one man performance of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes at the United Solo Festival in New York, 20 November 2019

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This Wednesday, November 20, 2019, Charles Etubiebi will perform a one man show adaptation of Africa Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes at the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York. (You can buy tickets here).  54 Silhouettes is the first Nigerian play to feature at the the world’s largest solo theatre festival, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

The satirical 54 Silhouettes explores with both hilarity and gut-punching conviction the double bind of an actor, Victor Chimezie, who hopes to break through to a major role in Hollywood but finds himself cast in yet another poorly written stereotypical film about Africa. The play is a sly critique of Hollywood but also a self-reflexive examination of African performers who enable such representations.

To attend the event, here are the basics:

Date: November 20.
Time: 7:30pm.
Location: 410 West 42nd street, New York, NY 10036.

I reviewed the premiere stage performance of 54 Silhouettes in 2013 for the Daily Trust.

 

Original 54 Silhouettes poster 2013

Courtesy of Africa Ukoh (photographs by Victor Audu)

The play was originally produced for radio on BBC after coming first runner up in the 2011 BBC African Performance competition, and being awarded a Stratford East/30 Nigeria House grant.  I didn’t know anything about the play before I showed up at the Alliance Francaise in Jos where I had seen it advertised in November 2013, but I was blown away by it. I had seen very little Nigerian theatre set in the contemporary moment, and this was fresh and urgent and original. In particular in my review, I highlighted the performance of Charles Etubiebi who played the part of the British-born actor Kayode Adetoba.

Sparks also fly between Chimezie and Kayode Adetoba (brilliantly played by Charles Etubiebi), the Brighton-born British-Nigerian actor whom everyone calls Tobi. He speaks with a South London accent, mispronounces Chimezie’s name just as Larry and Flynn do, and when he plays a warlord speaks with what internet critics call a “generic African accent.”

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Kayode Adetoba (Charles Etubiebi) and Victor Chimezie (Promise Ebichi) during the Jos premiere, 16 November 2013. (c) Carmen McCain

It seems appropriate, therefore, that Charles Etubiebi, whose performance I so admired in the original stage play,  is the actor to play all five parts in the solo adaptation, and who often refers to the importance of accent in interviews about the play, as does the playwright Africa Ukoh, whom I recently interviewed for Brittle Paper. Etubiebi explains to Noah Tsika in this fantastic interview for Africa is a Country how after being invited to the NEAP Fest theatre festival in Brazil, he asked Ukoh to adapt the play into a one man show, which he then performed in Rio de Janeiro and at several different festivals in Lagos. Here are two videos from his performances in Lagos where, Etubiebi talks about  the background to the play.

 

And on BBC pidgin:

 

Having previewed the Lagos show on YouTube, I think it is the tightest and best version of the play that I’ve encountered. It is a really an outstanding performance that speaks to the creative synergy between Charles Etubiebi, as a performer, and Africa Ukoh, as a writer and director.

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LADIES AND GENTLEMEN ITS HERE!!!! On stage this Saturday and Sunday in Lagos, in the one-man adaptation of Africa Ukoh's 54 SILHOUETTES, Charles Etubiebi is: Victor Chimezie! Sonny Chuks! Larry Singer! Howard Flynn! and Kayode Adetoba! What happens when your ambitions clash with your ideals? What path will you take? When a struggling Nigerian actor in Hollywood gets his shot at fame and fortune it seems his life's work is finally paying off, but then he discovers this dream job is exactly what he swore to never do: one of those "war in Africa" films. Come have a great night out at the theatre! Date: 18 and 19 May, 2019. Venue: Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos Island. Time: 7pm. Tickets: N3000.

A post shared by Charles Etubiebi (@charlesetubiebi) on

In the interview with Noah Tsika, Etubiebi describes his working relationship with Ukoh:

We got accepted to the Lagos Theatre Festival, which is run by the British Council. We performed [54 Silhouettes] there, and this time Africa came to Lagos and directed it himself. And this is when I most enjoyed the performance, because when you work with someone who actually created the thing … Working with Africa, we have a special dynamic. We ate the play, we talked the play, and when we did it in Lagos, at the festival, I genuinely enjoyed being this character, and telling this story. It was absolutely amazing.

As an actor, I know that I’m supposed to cry on demand, but I don’t do that easily. But the last rehearsal we had [in Lagos] … there’s a scene where the main actor gives this monologue about how we as Africans have to confront stereotypes of Africans—what people see from far off. They say, “Let’s just put them in a box and leave them there.” No, we’re more than that. We’re like every other person. Before you can get to know us—who we really are—you have to really look. Don’t just chalk us up as “black Africans”—first of all, in Nigeria, we have many languages. Let’s just start there, first of all. So we’re a lot more than you see. Africa’s a big continent. Those lines [in 54 Silhouettes], about how we need to educate and reeducate the world about who we really are—at the last rehearsal, I got emotional. And Africa said, “You’re ready.”

Since Etubiebi began to perform the one-man version of the play, the play has also been picked up for other dramatic readings, presented by Etubiebi’s Theatre Emissary partner Taiwo Afolabi at the Puente Theatre for the Spark Festival in Victoria, British Columbia and an African Voices event at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. London-based reviewer Nick Awde writes that 54 Silhouettes offers an “incisive slice of Nigeria while simultaneously channeling David Mamet.”

The United Solo Festival will be the first opportunity for American audiences to see this striking performance put together by two of the most exciting members of a creative cohort of artists that are revolutionizing Nigerian cinema and theatre. Africa Ukoh and Charles Etubiebi both have prestigious film credentials—Ukoh having written two critically acclaimed films making rounds on the recent film festival circuit, Abba Makama’s films Green White Green (available on Netflix) and The Lost Okoroshi, and Etubiebi having acted in films like Steve Gukas’s compelling 93 Days (available on Netflix and on Amazon Prime) and Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys (also on Netflix). But this feels like an exciting moment for Nigerian theatre as well, where Nigeria’s film industry invigorates and gives new life to Nigeria’s theatre tradition. 54 Silhouettes comments on Hollywood portrayals of Africa, but also reaches back and alludes to the dilemma of Wole Soyinka’s tragic hero Elesin in Death and the King’s Horseman. As I wrote in my review of the stage performance,

In Soyinka’s play, a patronizing colonial district officer Pilkings denounces as savage the tradition of ritual suicide by the oba’s companion after an oba’s death, but in “saving” Elesin he contributes to the death of Elesin’s son Olunde, who takes his father’s place. Chimezie and Larry recite dialogue from the scene where Elesin tells Pilkings, “You have shattered the peace of the world forever. There is no sleep in the world tonight.”

This symbolic tribute to Soyinka’s play resonates throughout 54 Silhouettes: Chimezie, like Elesin, faces great temptation to betray his people for a good life, and the well-meaning Larry, like Pilkings, is so blinded by his prejudices that he undermines (through his writing) the cultures he tries to represent.

Yet, in Chimezie’s turn away from the Hollywood stereotypes of Africa and, perhaps, a turn towards Nigeria’s new wave of theatre and cinema(?), is this the birth of the the unborn left at the end of Soyinka’s play?

If you are in New York, by all means go to the United Solo performance on Wednesday, 20 November, (tickets available here). Charles Etubiebi is already in New York for his performance in a few days.

If you are in Nigeria, hopefully there will be other performances soon, but, in the meantime, you may want to check out the published version of Africa Ukoh’s play, which can be purchased at the following bookshops:

Jos:

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  • Achison Bookshop, Rwang Pam Street
  • Modern Bookshop, Rwang Pam Street
  • Waltricks Bookstore, Adjacent UBA, Rwang Pam Street
  • Coal Bookstore, DSTV Plaza, Shop No. 8, Adjacent Mchez Eatery, Yingi Rayfield

Abuja:

  • Adam’s Pages, Machima Plaza, No. 2 Mambolo Close, Off Sultan Abubakar Way, Wuze Zone 2
  • The Booksellers, Ground Floor, City Plaza, Ahmadu Bello Way, Garki II
  • Salamander Cafe, 5 Buumbura Street, Wuse 2

Lagos:

  • Glendora Booktore in the Ikeja City Mall;
  • Parresia Bookstore, Ibiola Nelson House, Allen Avenue, Ikeja
  • Terra Kulture, 1376 Tiamiyu Savage Street, Victoria Island), Abuja, and Jos

As I’ve also mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Ukoh’s unpublished play Token Dead White Guy was shortlisted for the 2018 BBC International Playwriting Competition. You can read more about it in our conversation on Brittle Paper. Hopefully, this performance of 54 Silhouettes will only be the first of many of his plays to hit theatres in Nigeria and beyond. In the meantime, check out some of the recent films Ukoh has written scripts for: Green White Green (on Netflix), The Three Thieves, and The Lost Okoroshi. I’ve only been able to watch Green White Green so far, but the trailers promise more of what I’ve come to expect from him: smart, funny, and real:

 

 

Abba Makama’s new film The Lost Okoroshi (screenplay by Africa Ukoh) to premiere at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival

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Creative duo director Abba Makama and screenwriter Africa Ukoh strike again. For the second time a film collaboration between the two will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Update 5 September 2019: The film has also been selected to screen at the BFI London Film Festival in October 3 and 5. You can see information about where to see it on the BFI site here. Mike Omonua’s debut film The Man Who Cut Tattoos, which Makama produced, will premiere at BFI this year.)

The Lost Okoroshi, Makama’s second feature film, (though he also has a stable of hilarious short films and a really great documentary on Nollywood, which I teach) imagines a bored security guard whose life takes a turn when his dreams of masquerades invade the world of the living. Courtney Small writing for Cinema Axis calls it a “vibrant and wildly surreal ride.”

IndieWire describes Makama as

 one of the leading voices for Nigerian cinema today. He previously directed “Green White Green,” another TIFF selection that is now streaming on Netflix, as well as “Nollywood,” the Al Jazeera documentary about Nigeria’s film industry. He should be a presence at major festivals for years to come.

More recently, Native Magazine has interviewed him about some of the thinking behind his work.

Watch the trailer here

Green White Green, Makama’s first feature, which he also co-wrote with Africa Ukoh, has been one of my favourites since I first saw it on an Air France flight back in 2017 and have since watched it over and over again on Netflix.  Film critic Noah Tsika calls it “a hopeful, downright energizing love letter to Nigeria’s enterprising youth — to a new generation plainly capable of greatness.” As I’ve written in another blog post,

The film is a youthful takedown of the prejudices that tear Nigeria apart. It mocks Nollywood, with the good-natured ribbing of a son who follows in his father’s footsteps but laughs at his outdated affectations. It is a satire, but it is also  filled with a restless joy and a tenderness that draws me in to watch it over and over again on homesick nights.

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The Lost Okoroshi promises to be stylistically similar (the energetic jump-cuts, actors posed and staring into the camera as if for a family portrait) while pushing the conceit imagined by the young filmmakers in Green White Green a little further. In Green White Green, the young secondary school graduates shoot a metaphoric film about Nigeria, taking great delight in masquerades,  as both protective spirits and (in a fire breathing incarnation) as the “Beast of Corruption,” riffing on Fela’s “beasts of no nation.” In The Lost Okoroshi, the masquerade/s unfold into full-fledged characters, which seems to represent (as much as one can interpret a trailer) a reclamation of the ancestral masquerade not as an “evil beast” as often represented in Nollywood movies but as a way of bringing tradition into the future. And, as with Green White Green, there continues to be a sly Nollywood self-referentiality: “Forget all this Pete Edochie proverbs,” the subtitled Igbo reads, “This is not a Nollywood home video.”  Thus while building on an older tradition (incorporating, for example, the Nollywood comedian Chiwetalu Agu), Makama and Ukoh push their narratives out to the cutting edge of Nigerian cinema. This is not a Nollywood home video, no. But, it draws affectionately on Nollywood to create something exciting and new.

In its imagination of the masquerade in a 21st century city context, the film reminds me of contemporary Nigerian writers Nnedi Okorafor and Chikodili Emelumadu and the inadequacy of the sort of literary labels placed on these texts. Is this Afrofuturism? Nnedi Okorafor resists that label, preferring africanfuturism. Is this magical realism? Or what Ben Okri’s critics have called “spiritual realism“? Abba Makama recently quoted Newton Aduaka (the Nigerian filmmaker who won the FESPACO film festival’s highest prize, the Golden Stallion of Yennenga for his 2007 film Ezra):

Labels are useful but ultimately they reduce the subject. Yet, I like the idea of the hyper-real, a realism that captures not only the surface but the spirit behind it–this idea captures Nigerian life well, and the way filmmakers capture that life.

This is an exciting moment not only for Abba Makama, but also for his collaborator Africa Ukoh, whom I have featured on this blog before and interviewed for Brittle Paper. Today (I published this post a little bit too late!) Ukoh’s play 54 Silhouettes, which I reviewed back in 2013 and was published in 2018, was featured as a part of the Global Black Voices event at the Roundhouse in London. Ukoh also revised 54 Silhouettes into a remarkable one-man play, which Charles Etubiebi has been performing from Rio de Janeiro to Lagos to (forthcoming) New York. Etubiebi’s next scheduled performance of the play is at the November United Solo theatre festival in New York. You can see an interview with Etubiebi below:

 

If you’re in Toronto or Lagos or London or New York, go see the film, go see the play. And for those in Nigeria who are not in Lagos, I hope that they will both also come to a theatre near you.

P.S. One more note on Nigerian cinema. I just realized yesterday that Steve Gukas’s moving film 93 Days, also at the 2016 TIFF, which tells the story of the courageous doctors and public health officials who contained the ebola virus in Lagos, is out on Amazon Prime. Although ebola is a topic often sensationalized in Western media, Gukas handles the story sensitively, telling it from the perspective of Dr. Ada Igonoh, who survived the disease. It is a great example of Nigerians telling their own stories without making “poverty porn.” And in a direct link to the rest of the content of this post, actor Charles Etubiebi plays a significant role in the film as Bankole Cardoso.

My review of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of short stories What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky in the American Book Review

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Image courtesy of Kenya’s The Standard

As with almost all of my posts these days, this one is a year overdue, but with Lesley Nneka Arimah’s recent Caine Prize win for her fantastic short story “Skinned” first published in McSweeney’s, I was reminded that I had not yet posted about my review for American Book Review of her collection of short stories What It Means When a Man Falls from the SkySince it was published over a year ago in the May-June 2018 issue, it is quite late, but better late than never.

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Screenshot of the beginning of my review. To read the whole thing, access the pdf via this link

I was asked to submit the review as part of a special issue on “Harassment” edited by Amiee Armande Wilson, so my review focused a little more on that topic than I might have otherwise. Although American Book Review is behind a paywall, Amiee Armande Wilson worked to make sure that the “harassment” focus was open access. You can access a pdf of the insert here. It includes

Caitlin Newcomer’s review of Khadijah Queen’s  collection of poems, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (pp. 4-5);

Gabrielle Bellot’s review of Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of short stories Her Body and Other Parties on pp. 5-6  (a review I found so compelling that I immediately got the audiobook out of the library and finished it in a couple of days);

Carmen McCain’s (yours truly) review of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of short stories What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (pp. 7-8);

Sarah Deer’s review of Allison Hargreaves’ monograph Violence Against Indigenous Women: Literature, Activism, Resistance (pp. 8-9);

Victoria Reynolds Farmer’s review of Laura Kipnis’s feminist critique  Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (pp. 10-11);

Mat Wenzel’s review of Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair (pp. 11-12);

Sarah Whitcomb Laiola’s review of Angela Nagle’s  Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumbler to Trump and the Alt-Right (pp. 13-14)

Christopher Higg’s review of a collection of writing about sexual assault edited by Joanna C. Valente, A Shadow Map: An Anthology of Survivor’s of Sexual Assault (pp. 15).

If you haven’t yet read What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, I highly recommend it. But read “Skinned” first. It draws attention to existing social treatment of single women by pushing things just a little bit further. What if women were only allowed to cover themselves if they were living in their father’s or husband’s houses?

(And for a follow-up on my last post–an interview with playwright, actor, and screenwriter and Africa Ukoh–there are several new performances of his play on the calendar. Charles Etubiebi who has taken a one-man performance of the play to festivals in Rio de Janeiro and Lagos  will also be bringing the one-man performance of 54 Silhouettes to the United Solo theatre festival in New York City on November 20, 2019. An excerpt of the play will also be performed in London as part of the Global Black Voices event at The Roundhouse Theatre on 10 August 2019. For those in London and New York, go see it!)

Interview with playwright and screenwriter Africa Ukoh, whose play is currently on at the Lagos Theatre Festival

It’s been over a year since I’ve posted on this blog (to the extent that wordpress refused to let me log in for a few days), so I have much to catch up on. Most recently an interview I did last July with playwright and screenwriter Africa Ukoh has been published by Brittle Paper. His play 54 Silhouettes is currently being performed as a one-man show at the Lagos Theatre Festival.

(Update 17 July 2019: Charles Etubiebi will also be bringing the one-man performance of 54 Silhouettes to the United Solo theatre festival in New York City on November 20, 2019, and an excerpt of the play will be performed in London as part of the Global Black Voices event at The Roundhouse Theatre on 10 August 2019.)

(Update 9 August 2019: Abba Makama’s film The Lost Okoroshi, for which Africa Ukoh wrote the screenplay, will be premiering at the Toronto Film Festival this September)

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I first came across Africa’s work when I attended the November 2013 premiere of his play 54 Silhouettes in Jos, because the blurb of his play that I saw advertised at the Alliance Francaise looked interesting. The play follows a Nigerian actor who pursues his dream of acting in Hollywood but is troubled by the increasingly more disturbing “African” roles he is asked to play. It is a smart, thoughtful, passionate play. I loved it.

54 Silhouettes performance

Premiere performance of 54 Silhouettes in Jos, November 2013 (c) Carmen McCain

 

In my column in Daily Trust,reviewed 54 Silhouettes, which in its earlier incarnation had won the 30 Nigeria House prize and had been performed as a radio play after it won the the first runner up of the 2011 BBC African performance competition.  Last year, in 2018, Africa finally published the play with Parresia Press’s Origami imprint.

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It can be purchased at bookshops in Lagos, Abuja, and Jos, and online at sites like konga.com. Since its publication, he has adapted it into a one-man performance for actor Charles Etubiebi, who has performed it in Lagos and Brazil. In March, Taiwo Afolabi directed a staged reading of the play at the Puente Theatre in Victoria, Canada, at the Spark Festival. Currently, Charles Etubiebi is performing the play on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, April 12, 13, and 14 as part of the Lagos Film Festival at Esther’s Revenge, Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos Island. You can purchase tickets for N3000 online at ariiyatickets.com. (Update 9 August 2019: This Saturday, 10 August, the play will also be featured as part of the African Voices event at the Roundhouse in London.)

Aside from 54 Silhouettes, Africa’s unpublished play Token Dead White Guy was shortlisted for the 2018 BBC International Playwriting Competition.

Africa also works as a screenwriter. He co-wrote, with the director Abba Makama, the film Green White Green that premiered at Toronto Film Festival in 2016 and is currently available on Netflix. Noah Tsika calls it “a hopeful, downright energizing love letter to Nigeria’s enterprising youth — to a new generation plainly capable of greatness.”

The film is a youthful takedown of the prejudices that tear Nigeria apart. It mocks Nollywood, with the good-natured ribbing of a son who follows in his father’s footsteps but laughs at his outdated affectations. It is a satire, but it is also  filled with a restless joy and a tenderness that draws me in to watch it over and over again on homesick nights. I can’t wait to see future collaborations between Makama and Ukoh. (Update 9 August 2019: And one of those collaborations is premiering at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival: The Lost Okoroshi directed by Makama and written by Ukoh. Check it out. The trailer is on fire.)

To hear more of Africa’s thoughts on 54 Silhouettes, Token Dead White Guy, Green White Green, and the current state of theatre in Nigeria, check out our conversation on Brittle Paper,  follow him on Twitter or Instagram, or, even better, go see the play this weekend.  If you can’t get to Lagos for the performance, you can buy a copy of it online and stay tuned for future performances.

More blog posts  to come.

2018 Santa Barbara Film Festival begins with loss and love in Emilio Estevez’s social drama, the public

 

From Emilio Estevez’s film the public. (Photo from Deadline Hollywood)

“You’ve come close to the 7 horses of the apocalypse” my friend told me yesterday when I confided how disappointed I was in myself for missing an opportunity. “These things can weigh on you emotionally,” another friend said, “where even a ‘little email’ is no longer so little.” My friends are kind. I am grateful for them, these faces over Skype and words in type traveling over time zones to be with me.

And so it is in Montecito, after the fire passed by and the mountain came down. It is in these moments of communal trauma that I begin to feel that I love this place and the people in it–it begins to feel like a community I might be able to belong to.

Tonight the Santa Barbara International Film Festival kicked off, so I and my 18 students (clutching packets of discounted student tickets) found ourselves at the grand Arlington Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara, under a ceiling of constellations traced out in lights. We were attending the premiere of Emilio Estevez’s film the public, in a moment when the “issue” of homelessness feels closer than ever. Hundreds of California homes have been destroyed over the past two months by fire and mud, and as a character in the film points out, homelessness is only a job-loss away.

Perhaps it is because the festival was beginning as the loss is still hanging in the air, as we are still navigating our ways around road blocks where streets were swept away, that the festival opener felt like church. The director of the film festival, Roger Durling, read out the names of those who died in the Montecito mudslides, like a liturgy:

Faviola Benitez, Jonathan Benitez, Kailly Benitez, Joseph Francis Bleckel, Martin Cabrera-Munoz, David Cantin, Morgan Christine Corey, Sawyer Corey, Peter Fleurat, Josephine Gower, John McManigal, Alice Mitchell, James Mitchell, Mark Montgomery, Caroline Montgomery, Marilyn Ramos, Rebecca Riskin, Roy Rohter, Peerawat Sutthithepa, Pinit Sutthithepa, Richard Taylor, and the two still missing Jack Cantin and little Lydia Sutthithepa.

And then, as if we were in church, he had us turn around and introduce ourselves to someone we did not know. After Emilio Estevez introduced the some of the cast members to the audience, Alec Baldwin, Michael K. Williams, Jena Malone, Jacob Vargas, he bid us watch the film with a  “God bless you.”

Church did not end when the film began. There was a certain sweetness to the story, despite the street-smart mouthing of “mother-fuckas” and the reoccurring (humourous, male) nudity. the public feels old fashioned in a good way–a touch of Jimmy Stewart–a moral tale without smugness or self-righteous. Although the film is political, it is not cynical. When pastors appear, they are good people. You see the church, specifically the Black Church,  making space for the homeless and defying the police to bring food and supplies into a stand-off where violent tension has escalated beyond all reason.

But if the film feels old fashioned in its unabashed ideals, it is also a film that speaks perfectly to the moment. This is the dark side of America, one of the wealthiest nations on earth, where hundreds of people freeze to death every winter. And then there the America where corrupt institutions and selfish individualism converge:  the public prosecutor campaigning for mayor calls for law and order and then manufactures “fake news” to help his cause, heavy-handed police tactics turn a low-key protest into a life or death situation, and a TV reporter is so obsessed with her Twitter following that she gets the story completely wrong. While glued to her smart phone, she misses the opportunity for multiple scoops. In an era of climate change, there is even a polar bear looming over the library, perhaps as a warning that knowledge and institutions are fleeting in the face of a climate and a future we cannot control.

And indeed the climate and what it means for human survival is the driver of the conflict in the film. It is winter in Cincinatti, polar vortex cold, and the homeless people come in the library to get warm, to wash up in the bathrooms, to even try out the world of online dating from the library desktops.

The gatekeeper between the warmth of the library and the harsh cold of the outside is the “boring” white-guy librarian, Stuart, played by Emilio Estevez himself, whom acquaintances believe has a job where he gets to read all day. But–as we should keep in mind in this age of snap judgments–appearances are not always what they seem. He and his coworkers share a love for literature–John Steinbeck is a reoccurring motif–but their daily tasks have more in common with social workers. Stuart arrives at work to find his patrons impatiently waiting outside. As soon as the library is open “to the public,” they stream in.

He has a good rapport with the library’s patrons.  He knows them all–at least the regulars–by name and has a certain intuition that enables him to stop fights before they happen, share their jokes and patiently endure their idiosyncrasies. (“Hail Caesar.”) As librarian, he has to enforce the rules–opening time, closing time, no nudity in the library. But when he arrives at work one day to see the body of a patron he knows well being hauled away in an ambulance–dead from cold–and when his own hard work is undermined by soulless library board members, he begins to question the rules. The homeless man he is closest to (played by Michael K. Williams) asks him why they have to leave the library when there are record cold temperatures outside and no more room in the homeless shelters.

The hard-nosed prosecutor running for mayor (played by a sharp-featured Christian Slater), of course, has all the answers. “Law and Order.” “We can’t set precedent.” “The library is not a homeless shelter.” We need to follow the protocol where the police can clear these people out within the hour. But, if the prosecutor represents all that is wrong with our current public discourse, the other characters increasingly question why they are upholding laws that are cruel:  the head librarian (Jeffrey Wright) begins to lose his officiousness, the librarian (Jena Malone) who initially tries to sneak away ends up sticking around as a witness; even the police negotiator (Alec Baldwin), who is living with a loss that is eating him alive, finds himself struggling to do the job that is expected of him. Yet when our boring white protagonist does the right thing, the past he had worked so hard to escape comes looming up before him.

There is a danger in “issue” films in coming across heavy-handed, and occasionally, I did feel a certain self-awareness in the actors recitation of their lines. I grew frustrated with characters who refused to see the obvious (though this is a frustration that grows daily in the world we live in, as well). And the postcolonial critic in me also wonders why it’s always got to be the white guy who is the protagonist and the leader. That said, Estevez plays the role of the understated but passionate librarian brilliantly; the cast is wonderful and varied, with people of colour playing some of the most compelling roles: Jeffrey Wright as the head librarian who undergoes a moral crisis alongside his employee, the charming Jacob Vargas as a sympathetic security guard, Gabrielle Union as the self-obsessed TV reporter, and the two most well-developed homeless characters,  Che “Rymefest” Smith who is obsessed with the belief that he has lasers in his eyes, and Michael K. Williams as the independent philosopher who instigates his homeless friends to protest and prods his librarian friend’s conscious.

Yet, although the film deals with heavy themes, it is not weighted down by them. There is a humour and affection and humanity here. The characters may be drunkards, drug addicts, and conspiracy theorists, and many of them may struggle with mental illness, yet they also are also readers and philosophers, veterans who fought for their country and former family men who paid their taxes before they lost it all. And while there are many moments of irony, as the police march into the library under the looming portrait of Frederick Douglass, or when our librarian reads out the opening paragraphs of The Grapes of Wrath to the social-media obsessed reporter who thinks he is raving mad, the irony is not so bitter that it turns rancid. There are cynical people here–the prosecutor is as cynical as they get–and bitter injustice exists at the heart of the city, but the film itself is not cynical. Instead it celebrates the goodness and beauty and ingenuity of its human characters.

There is no conventional beauty here, although there were some lyrical opening shots of people walking across urban spaces. Our librarian protagonist Stuart is small and mousy. His co-librarian has messy bangs and frumpy clothes and starts out judgy. The library where they work is functional but not an elegant space. It is filled with homeless people with wild hair and old clothes. Yet, the film takes the very ordinariness of the setting and transforms it. Small characters become big, those so often treated as throw-away people demonstrate courage and thoughtfulness. There is hardness here but there is also hope. “The public library is the last bastion of true democracy that we have in this country,” says the head librarian, and thus this library space, a source of knowledge and quite literally of life, becomes a symbolic setting for a drama in which democratic ideals are stretched and challenged and acted upon.

I like this film. I like it enough to sit down and blog about it right away  until  3am instead of preparing my lesson plan for tomorrow.

I like that the public lets its morals show.  I like the hints of church in it and the hints of sentimentality edged with steel. I like that it has complicated characters who nevertheless do the right thing. In this era of fake news and cruel policy and narcissistic self absorption, we do not need cynicism, we need uprightness, we need earnest truth-telling, and people who take a stand for right. Yet we also need the  right amount of humor and self deprecation so that we don’t become judgy or smug. This is what The Public does. I hope it becomes more widely available soon.

Watch the trailer here.

Photographic Memory 1: props for Blood and Henna

It has been nearly a year since I posted on this blog, in the fevered anguish so many of us felt after the election and inauguration of America’s current glorious leader. After that, I lost the heart to write and I filled my time with teaching and and social media, that succubus.

But I miss writing. I miss my column in Daily Trust. And because I have no urgent deadline, I write very little these days, at least writing for myself. I do try to eke out what academic writing I need to get the job done. But, because I am not exercising my writing muscles, what I write is creaky and awkward.

Tonight, I was looking through my photos for one such academic project. I have thousands of photos, hidden in thousands of files on my laptop. And I have often thought that I should give myself a blog assignment of posting a photo a day and to write about the memory that rushes to mind. A photo a day is probably much too ambitious, so I will merely say that I will try to post more often, and I will try to look at my photos more often, and I will let myself remember and write more often. It is 2am here, but I have determined to do this, so let’s go.

 

 

So for today’s photo I went back to 5 November 2011. Only a few months earlier I had moved from Kano to Jos to try to work full time on my PhD dissertation. But in late October I went back to Kano for the Goethe Institut premiere of Duniya Juyi Juyi, a film produced by the researcher Hannah Hoechner but written, directed, and acted in by almajirai. I see, via my photos, that this was also the first time I saw my friend Sa’adatu Baba Ahmed’s newborn daughter, who is now a big girl of seven.

While in Kano, Kenneth Gyang, one of Nigeria’s most exciting and experimental directors, got in touch with me (I believe via Nafisa) and asked if I could act a bit part as an ugly-American Pfizer researcher in his historical film Blood and Henna, which touches on the tragic 1996 Pfizer meningitis trials in Kano. I said yes. So, on my way back to Kano I detoured through Kaduna where the film was being shot. We shot the hospital scenes in a school made to look like a hospital. Here a props guy is hanging a chart of a skeleton. (More photos in my flickr album, from the first and second day of shooting)

Feeling keenly my lack of training in acting and the exaggerated American accent I had put on after years of being back in Nigeria, I actually dreaded seeing this for years. It received 6 nominations at the 2013 Africa Movie Academy Awards–the first Hausa film to be honoured as such by AMAA. I finally saw it at a screening at KABAFEST, the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival put together by Lola Shoneyin this summer, and the film blew me away. Fortunately, my part is very small, and Sadiq Sani Sadiq and Nafisa Abdullahi carry the film with their powerful understated acted.  It is a quiet, moving film about the ordinary people behind the sensational headlines that make up history. It’s not as experimental as Gyang’s film Confusion Na Wa, but it’s just as striking.

I should write more, but it is much too late, and I have more academic writing and class preparations to do to tomorrow. But let this serve as a start. I will post more.

For my loved ones in Republican states, call your representatives

Dear Republican loved one living in a “Red” State (from your non-Republican loved one living in a “Blue” state),

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Thank you for listening, two days ago, to me talk about my concerns about the Man in the White House. Thank you for listening, and thank you for asking me to send you a list of the things I am concerned about. I appreciate your openness to hearing my perspective.

There are some relatives I know voted for Donald Trump. I do not know if you did. I do not ask. What I do ask, however, of all my loved ones no matter how they voted is to please call your representatives and register your concerns with the ongoing executive overreach.

I realize that some people may have “held their noses” and voted along party lines or over concerns about abortion or high healthcare costs. I know those same people have serious concerns about his personal character and leadership ability. On the other hand, to those people who continue to defend the Man in the White House or to even celebrate him, please consider reading the links to the articles I provide below and giving some thought to our concerns.

I believe those of you who are Republicans and who live in states with Republican representatives have more power than those of us who live in states with Democratic representatives, since the Republicans currently have control of all three branches of government: the executive, legislative, and judiciary. Unless Republican lawmakers and those who voted for them stand up against abuse from the executive branch, I seriously fear for the future of this country.

Since the day of the inauguration, things have been moving so fast that it has been hard to keep up with everything that is going on (it’s similar to the days of the campaign, where Trump would blitz us with multiple things at one time so that when we focused on some new sensationalistic outrage, we missed the quieter but more dangerous discussions going on). However, this New York Times interactive site shows what Trump has done and what he still has to do on his agenda. PBS has a similar page from a few days ago that looks at 10 executive orders Trump signed with only one week in office.

Here is a partial (but not complete because I don’t have enough time to do that) list of some of my most pressing concerns.

Because I am alarmed at the amount of disinformation, fake news, and “alternative facts” floating around, I have decided to support institutions that are well known for investigative journalism and fact checking; therefore, I have subscribed to digital access for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. I have also donated to The Guardian, and have other magazine subscriptions, including Time, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, as well as The Sun and Essence. (And no, I don’t have time to read them all but the digital access to news is invaluable) If you find that you cannot access some of these articles because you aren’t a subscriber, please let me know and I can send you a pdf of the article. If you do not read news from these organizations because you think they are “biased,” please take a look at this “news literacy toolkit” one of my smartest students sent me last semester on how to evaluate what you read.

Commitment to a free and fair media.

I am alarmed by Trump’s proclaimed “war with the media.” A free press has long been considered one of the pillars of democracy, alongside the executive, legislative, and judicial branches—an essential check and balance to hold the government accountable. However, Trump’s “war against the media” has involved refusing to take questions from media outlets during press conferences, talk of moving the presscorps out of the White House, and restricting government agencies from speaking to the press or even publishing information on their websites. His “gag order” on Federal agencies does not allow them to engage in any external communications until Trump has completed putting political appointees into place.  While some analysts think this is merely temporary and not a big deal, it seems that he has targeted agencies, like the EPA, which are involved “environmental protection and scientific research.”. You can read more about this at The New York Times and PBS.

He has also been involved in propaganda efforts, such as demanding the acting director of the National Park Service to produce additional photographs of crowds on the Mall during inauguration and bringing a crowd to applaud him at his address at the CIA headquarters.; His advisor Steve Bannon reinforces this “war” with the media, and 6 journalists were charged with felonies while covering the inauguration protests on the day of the inauguration.

John Fea, a historian who teaches at Messiah College, points to the multiple untruths told by Trump, including the infamous appeal to “alternative facts” and his team since the inauguration and asks where the Christians who will stand up for truth are.

Ban on Refugees AND legal immigrants with visas/greencards

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My most immediate concern is Trump’s executive order banning refugees entry from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, or Yemen (full text here following on an earlier draft, which proposed to “indefinitely block Syrian refugees from entering the United States and bar all refugees from the rest of the world for at least 120 days.” ). The ban also includes green card holders—that is permanent residents of the United States—and dual citizens of other countries—for example a British-Iranian or a Dutch-Somalian. If they are currently travelling, whether on business to go to a funeral etc, they will not be allowed to enter. Here are some of the stories of those travellers who were affected when the executive order was signed. (UPDATE, 29 January 2016: This story of a Somali woman travelling with her two children [American citizens] to join her husband in the U.S. is particularly upsetting. She was continuously browbeaten to try to get her to sign documents invalidating her visa, told she would be sent back to “Africa,” she was handcuffed, and she and her children were not fed during their 20 hour ordeal.)

These stories, as told by the New York Times, include the family of Fuad Shareef of Iraq, who worked as an interpreter and translator for the U.S. armed forces in Iraq, a job for which he had received death threats. He and his family were given clearance to move to the U.S. and they sold their home and car and gave up jobs to move to America, but were not allowed to board their flight in Cairo and are stuck there.  Nisrin Omer a Sudanese woman who is a PhD student at Stanford and a greencard holder was handcuffed, aggressively patted down and interrogated for hours after returning from a research trip in Sudan. Similarly Ali Abdi, a PhD student at Yale who has a green card is stuck outside of the country; an Iranian scholar who had a fellowship to study at Harvard is now unable to come. The stories also include a Yazidi refugee from Iraq who was about to join her husband; Christian Syrian relatives of U.S. citizens who have already landed in Philadelphia,; a dual British-Iranian citizen unable to get home to Scotland from Costa Rica because her flight connected through the U.S.; etc. etc, etc. This NYT article follows up some of these stories and describes the fear and unrest all over the world caused by this ban. Although immigration policy analysts say the ban is illegal and the ACLU was able to obtain a stay of action from a federal judge in Brooklyn so that travellers would not be deported, they may still be detained. Furthermore, this is only temporary, and White House senior advisor Stephen Miller has said, “Nothing in the Brooklyn judge’s order in anyway impedes or prevents the implementation of the president’s executive order which remains in full, complete and total effect.” (UPDATE 29 January 2016: The American Immigration Lawyers Association report that “border agents were checking the social media accounts of those detained and were interrogating them about their political beliefs before allowing them into the U.S.”Note that these were people with legal visas.)

This has already caused a massive international relations problem. Iran, which had recently signed a nuclear non-proliferation deal with the U.S., has called it “an obvious insult to the Islamic world.” Deutche Welle covers more global responses to the ban.

Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration also states that it will publish the “criminal acts committed by aliens.” For analysis on why this is problematic, see these articles,  on Simcha Fisher and the Daily Kos, which point to similar actions taken against Jews in Nazi Germany. The constant association of immigrants with criminality serves to dehumanize them and desensitize people to abuses against them.

A few Republican lawmakers, are joining Democratic lawmakers, to question the ban, but there should be more. [Update 29 January 2016 – Time Magazine now reports on “more than a dozen GOP members of Congress” who have spoken out against the executive order] [Update 30 January 2016  In particular, John McCain “has called the new Trump ban on immigration from a set of Muslim-majority countries a recruiting boon for Islamic State radicals.”]  Please call your representatives and register your protest.

American University history professor Richard Breitman has written about Anne Frank and her family were also denied entry into the U.S. and were eventually murdered in Nazi concentration camps. In a 2007 paper, he wrote “Otto Frank’s efforts to get his family to the United States ran afoul of restrictive American immigration policies designed to protect national security and guard against an influx of foreigners during time of war.” [UPDATE 29 January 2016 For Holocaust Memorial Day–the day Trump signed the executive order banning refugees–The Smithsonian has an article commemorating 254 Jewish refugees, passengers on the ship  the St. Louis, murdered in the Holocaust after being turned back from the shores of Cuba and the United States and sent back to Europe.]

Many members of our family have visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and also visited the house of Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian who protected many Jewish refugees from the Nazis. Consider this in relation to the Syrian crisis today.  Can we not draw connections? What was the point of visiting those houses if we don’t learn from them? Will we be able to live with our consciences if we deny refuge to those running for their lives?

Here are several Christianity Today articles talking about the Christian responsibility to speak up for refugees, and those Christian organizations who already have: “How to Respond as a follower of Christ to Trump’s ban of refugees” and “Evangelical experts oppose Trump’s plan to ban Syrian Refugees.” [UPDATE 29 January 2016: a coalition of evangelical groups has written a letter opposing the privileging of Christian refugees over Muslim refugees. Those who signed it included the CEO of the Accord Network, the president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities,  the President of Korean Churches for Community Development, the President the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, the President of National Hispanic Christian Leadership, an Ambassador for the Wesleyan Church, the President of World Relief, and the President of World Vision US. Catholic and Mormon leaders have also opposed the executive order. The New York Times also interviews Christian leaders who oppose Trump’s plan.]

 The Wall

On 25 January, Trump signed an executive order on the immediate commencement of building a $20 billion border wall, which he concedes that “US taxpayers would have to initially fund” while simulateously defunding a myriad of far less expensive other programs including NPR and PBS, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Violence Against Women grants, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the Office of Fossil Energy, etc but he cannot start building it until Congress approves. Please urge your representatives to oppose the wall. This article describes some of the problems Trump will face in trying to implement the wall, including  the huge expense of the wall, the ire of citizens whose land will need to be seized to provide property for the wall and those who are concerned that patrolling border communities with “tens of thousands of heavily armed, poorly trained, unaccountable agents puts lives at risk. This will turn these communities into de facto military zones” Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Colaition immigrant advocacy group says (The Guardian). See also, the New York Times.

It is not just advocacy groups who are criticizing the wall, however. Republican congressman Will Hurd of Texas has also said that “Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border” NPR points out that Trump’s suggested “import tax” means that Americans, not Mexico, would pay for the wall.

And I haven’t even gotten into Trump’s worrisome appointments yet. Most recently, Trump has “restructured the National Security Council” and has given Steve Bannon, filmmaker and former publisher of sensationalist, conspiracy theorizing Brietbart News who has links to white supremacist organizations, a seat on the National Security Council.

Other issues of international concern

 China is talking about a WAR with the U.S.

Fox News points out the damage Trump is doing to American democracy and its reputation in the world.

Foreign policy experts are so concerned by Trump’s decisions that the “entire senior management team” of the state department resigned. These are people who had worked under both Republican and Democratic presidents in the past. Additionally over 100 diplomats and state department officials have signed “a draft document formally protesting President Donald Trump’s immigration and refugee order.” [You can read the full text of the document here.]

(Update 29 January 2016: Conservative analyst Eliot Cohen, who worked as a counselor to Condoleeza Rice,  has written):

Trump, in one spectacular week, has already shown himself one of the worst of our presidents, who has no regard for the truth (indeed a contempt for it), whose patriotism is a belligerent nationalism, whose prior public service lay in avoiding both the draft and taxes, who does not know the Constitution, does not read and therefore does not understand our history, and who, at his moment of greatest success, obsesses about approval ratings, how many people listened to him on the Mall, and enemies.

He will do much more damage before he departs the scene, to become a subject of horrified wonder in our grandchildren’s history books. To repair the damage he will have done Americans must give particular care to how they educate their children, not only in love of country but in fair-mindedness; not only in democratic processes but democratic values. Americans, in their own communities, can find common ground with those whom they have been accustomed to think of as political opponents. They can attempt to renew a political culture damaged by their decayed systems of civic education, and by the cynicism of their popular culture.

[…]

There was nothing unanticipated in this first disturbing week of the Trump administration. It will not get better. Americans should therefore steel themselves, and hold their representatives to account. Those in a position to take a stand should do so, and those who are not should lay the groundwork for a better day. There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him.

The Environment

Trump approved pipelines to pass near Sioux lands, building on a long history of disrespect, genocide, forced migration, and land seizure from Native Americans. Indigenous people are not protesting for no reason. According to Reuters, as recently as January 23, 2017, an oil pipeline in Saskatchewan, Canada, leaked over 50,000 gallons onto indigenous lands.  According to the New York Times, Trump owned stock in the company that is building the Dakota Access Pipeline. He claims he sold it, but he has provided no documentation to prove the sell–just as he has never released his tax returns. Trump also believes climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China and  plans to reverse environmental legislation.

The Rachel Maddow show gives researched evidence of serious environmental concerns under Trump.

Conflicts of Interest

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Related to my concerns about Trump’s many falsehoods are my concerns about his ethics in other areas of life (and I don’t even have time to get into his abuse of women here). He has never released his tax returns and he has not divested from his business as presidents are expected to do. For comparison Jimmy Carter had to sell his family farm so as to not have a conflict of interest. By contrast, Trump did not put his business in a blind trust—instead having his sons manage his business. Now, there are reports that the fees at the club Mar-a-lago have raised membership fees from 100,000 to 200,000, cashing in on Trump’s new position and attracting those who might wish to have some influence over Trump or the government. There’s a lot more of this. I don’t have time to post it all right now. (Update: This piece by a Fordham University law professor explains Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause) But my question is, where are all of our checks and balances I heard people talking about before the election when they were saying Trump couldn’t do everything he said he would do? Who is enforcing our laws? And why aren’t we holding the man in the White House and our lawmakers responsible?

Education appointment

According to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, a Senate Ethics review found that Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, who has never worked at an educational institution and has no experience in public education or education standards and who seemed quite unprepared during the hearing, is involved in 102 companies that could cause a conflict of interest. She also believes there needs to be guns in schools. During the hearing, DeVos would not agree that there should be equal accountability for private or charter schools that receive federal funds: Here is more from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

Hundreds of Calvin College alumni (the college DeVos attended) sign a letter outlining the concerns they have about the appointment.

This is just a very preliminary list that covers only a fraction of the fears I have over this new government. The only encouraging things to me in the past week have been the massive women’s marches that took place all over America and all over the world. I went to the march in Santa Barbara where over 6000 people came out.

We did not have a street permit, but when the police saw how many of us there were, they opened the streets for us.

I am also encouraged by the people who have gone to airports in the last 24 hours to demand that people with valid visas be let into the country.

Now is my time to get over my anger at those who voted (based on what they saw as “morals”) for Trump and to appeal to you to stand up for your values with us. You can’t get your vote back, but you can stand up for what is right. We will not agree on every issue, but I think (and hope) that many of those who voted for Trump believe in kindness, goodness, hospitality, love for our neighbour. It is only when we can realize, as President Obama said, in the face of grief and anger, that “we are not as divided as we seem,”  that we can stand up against the kind of reckless authoritarianism we are seeing manifest in the man currently in the White House and those around him.

Please. Call your representatives. Remind them of the ideals for which you voted: life, liberty, freedom and justice for all.