Thursday, 2 June 2011

An evening with the Prof

Monday 30th of May, I learnt from my friend that Professor Wole Soyinka will be giving a talk at the Southbank in a couple of weeks, “there’s no way I can miss this” I said “please make sure you send me the details this week so I can book my ticket” The next day I found out from Symeon Brown (Monty Kipps) that the event that I envisioned will be in a couple of weeks time was in fact going to happen the following day, so my weeks of preparation was actually days and in all probability our chances of procuring a seat will be slim because tickets for this will virtually be sold out. With this in mind we decided nonetheless to meet there, one way or another we said; we will enter, the Southbank cannot stifle the voice of two young black men who were adamant on listening to one of their inspirations, a literary genius who has impelled the works of so many, if they deny us access we will storm the barracks, demand the Profs attention and as sturdy men wrestle us out he will stand up and shout no, this is exactly the type of passion and action that lacks dreadfully from the young people today, let them stay, in fact, bring extra chairs up to this stage, they will sit with me... one can dream right?

The next day I frantically negotiated my way through London traffic, the last thing I wanted to be today was late, being late will somewhat dampen my act of defiance, and generally, it’s not a good look. I then received a text message from another friend of mine who managed somehow to get us last minute tickets from press office, “how on earth did you manage that?” I ask “Gift of the gab” she said as she laughed “I also told her you guys will blog about it and will not storm down their event!”

So we arrive, late, but that’s not the point right now, we sit, bring out our notepads and fixate our gaze at this ethereal being, with an angelic halo of perfectly conditioned afro hair hovering above him he spoke magnificently, addressed Jude Kelly with such swagger that I’m sure she if not for just a split second thought about the Prof in ways her husband Michael Birch would not approve. He spoke about many things, inevitably about Nigeria and its politics, the impact Nollywood is having on the economy and his reluctant embrace of the industry, Africa and its choice of leadership, and his resentment over how his work has pulled him away from being an artist and towards politics. Most importantly he spoke about Theatre, its transforming powers and how he will forever be in love with this medium.

The evening was opened up to the audience and Symeon inevitably got the mic, he posed a question on historical archive when it comes to the African and Caribbean experience, why there is no recognised institute committed to retaining these chronicles in a way that will harness our future as Black people. The professor somewhat misunderstood and made a valuable point of how we take for granted the history of our people in the UK because it’s very much embedded in the fabrics of our day to day living- we live on Ladbroke Grove, we live in Brixton- we don’t realise these are cultural landmarks and that we need to preserve the stories within them. Without the mic now, Symeon continued his personal dialogue with the Prof across the auditorium as he reiterated his question, now understanding the scope of Symeon’s question the Prof said “maybe we should ask SOAS, why this infrastructure isn’t in place”, only for Symeon to respond “I studied at SOAS, believe me it’s not the place for the answer”. Sitting there enjoying this rather spontaneous banter reminded me of the words of a Malian writer and ethnologist Amadou Hampâté Bâ who said; "In Africa, when an old man dies, it's a library burning." This sentiment resonated with me through the night and made me realise just how important organisations like the Black Cultural Archive are in recording the legacy and preserving true and honest accounts.

Straight after the talk we met a lovely young lady by the name of Ibiene who has indirect relations to Prof Soyinka and was one of the select few that was invited to the post talk reception, buoyed by our fortuitous day we decided to accompany her to the reception and get close and personal with the Prof, alas, this was not to be as we were denied access despite our attempts to use our skills of negotiation. After a minute or two of fruitless negotiating we realised the Prof was approaching us so we decided to talk to him personally before he entered the ever elusive reception.

“Professor Soyinka ” Symeon called, he smiled at us as he stopped, “We just had a very interesting conversation about historical archive and the Black experience in the UK, I feel we need to continue this dialogue”, there was brief silence, then the Prof reached out to shake our hands and tap Symeon on the shoulder saying as he walked away “it is down to you young ones now, you must take it from here” we were rendered speechless and could only watch as he walk through the doors into the reception...his charisma intense but effortless, this man had real swagger.

Still dissatisfied with our brief encounter we continued scoping our way in, planning our manoeuvre around the clutches of one lady adamant on standing at the door like a MI5 operative, we will find our attempts to be futile as we later settle for creating our own reception outside with Ibiene and volunteers of the collective artistes, I guess those inside must have known it was out with us where the real party was because even Dianne Abbott ventured out responding to Symeon’s “how was it in there?” with a passive “it’s alright in there” as she joined Femi Elufowoju, Nigerian playwright and director who like us was relegated to the sidelines, others fizzled out and we all entertained each other until it was quite clear that we will not be seeing the Prof again that evening and with that in mind took to our exit.

My drive home gave me time to reflect on the evening and the wonderful chances we took, it left me spurred by the words of Professor Wole Soyinka, more so by the one he said much more casually as he walked away from us; “it is down to you young ones now, you must take it from here”

We will Prof, we will.

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