Nigerian playwright inspires Black History Month production at SIU


Ryan Michalesko

Africana studies professor, Joseph Brown, silently reflects during a vigil remembering victims of the Orlando shooting Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, in Grinnell Hall. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

By Tyra Wooten

For the first time, one story of prominent civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois will be acted out on stage.

The production of “A Nightingale for Dr. Du Bois” — which examines the last weeks of the life of sociologist, historian and author W. E. B. Du Bois in Ghana — can be seen Thursday through Sunday in the McLeod Theater. The show is put on by SIU’s Department of Theater.

While the play had a stage reading in February 2016, this is the first time the production has been acted out on stage, said Vincent Rhomberg, the theater’s coordinator of marketing.


The theatrical narrative will be portrayed through spiritual choir, West African dance and authentic costumes by a renowned Nigerian designer. A choir will sing spirituals and folk songs, and performancers will embody African masked dancers, Rhomberg said.

Part of Black History Month, the play was written by Femi Osofisan, a highly recognized poet and playwright whose work revolves around African social issues.

SIU associate professor Segun Ojewuyi, the theatre’s head of directing, invited Chukwuma Okoye, an old classmate and friend from Nigeria, to SIU to design the production’s costumes, according to a university news release. Okoye is a professor of theater, costume design and dance at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

Okoye admired Du Bois when he was studying African American literature in 1981, he said.

“I was reasonably familiar with his thoughts and theories of racism and black identity,” Okoye said. “Du Bois influenced the whole of Africa.”

The Rev. Joseph Brown, a professor in SIU’s Africana Studies department, plays Du Bois. He said this production is extremely important, especially today.

“My ability to portray this character, I think is a very positive and powerful opportunity for me to be a teacher in a different setting,” he said.


Brown, who has been teaching for 50 years, said Du Bois is one of the most accomplished intellects of the 20th century for human rights.

“People like Du Bois are who shape our destiny with courage, dedication and persistence,” Brown said.

Rhomberg said the story details the last few weeks of Du Bois’ life as he seeks to finish an encyclopedia of African American history with Nigerian President Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah.

“The play is a look at Africa’s fight for independence and its fight against racial oppression in parallel to America’s fight in racial oppression,” he said.

Rhomberg said Du Bois wanted to escape racial tension in America and Nkrumah was dealing with the aftermath of British colonization. He said Fathia Nkrumah, the president’s wife; Shirley, Du Bois’ wife; and Col. Christine Debrah, DuBois’ caretaker, were the amazing black women behind their success.

“The role of women alternates as oppression was fought for,” Rhomberg said. “It changed the way women were in the society too.”

Rhomberg said society tends to forget the people before them and all the work they did.

“Before you and I were born, there was history that created opportunity for now,” he said. “That’s what moved me about this play.”

Nathaniel Washington, a senior from Evansville, Indiana, studying musical theater, plays Nkrumah. He said playing the role is an honor.

“His legacy is something that will always be remembered not just through Ghanaian history but around the world,” Washington said.

Washington said there hasn’t been a production that embodies these multicultural concepts in a while. He said it’s needed now more than ever.

“This play not only represents the ideals of Black History Month but it’s also a monument of true African culture,” Washington said.

Staff writer Tyra Wooten can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @twootenDE.

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