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KU professor’s play aims to be conversation starter

With support of University grant, African and African-American studies professor pens play to spur racial equity discussion.

by Steven Hill
Peter Ukpokudu

As a playwright, Peter Ukpokodu is adept at using dialogue and action to bring characters to life onstage, and he hopes that audiences who attend the Kansas City Melting Pot Theatre’s summer production of his latest play are entertained by his use of these traditional dramatic tools.

But as a scholar, the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of African and African-American Studies believes the dialogue and action that come after the closing curtain of “The Search for Anno Domini MMXXI-I-VI” are just as important.

Ukpokodu, PhD’85, wrote the play with the support of a KU Racial Equity Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity Award. He was one of 10 members of the campus community selected in the inaugural round of funding granted in 2021. Since then the program has funded an additional eight projects.

Administered by the University’s Office of Research and the Hall Center for the Humanities, the program annually supports projects by KU faculty members that are designed to foster progress toward removing systemic barriers to housing, education, employment, health care, public safety and other key factors in racial inequity. Each two-year project chosen by peer review can receive up to $20,000, and the selection process prioritizes engagement with local community groups to identify and address local problems. The goal, according to the program guidelines, “is to foster progress toward racial equity through a combination of research, dialogue and action.”

At the Melting Pot, theatregoers will be asked to stay after the play ends to discuss with the playwright and cast the racial equity issues it raises.

“This is not the kind of theatre in which you just go there, enjoy the play, and then go away,” Ukpokodu says. “Yes, I want you to enjoy the play, but I want to see what kind of solutions that people may have to all the problems that have been raised.”

Playwright Peter Ukpokodu (left) and director Nicole Persley Hodges (right) with cast members during May rehearsals.

“The Search for Anno Domini MMXXI-I-VI” employs a multiethnic cast, with each character representing a different race, seated face-to-face onstage. Serious topics mix with humor, and some of the action revolves around a character who mistakenly believes Anno Domini to be the name of a person who is in a Latin street gang called MMXXI-I-VI. That the true meaning of the title becomes evident only in the course of the play is part of Ukpokodu’s strategy to highlight the ignorance that often underlies racial stereotypes.

“I’m putting representatives of all the races on the same platform to talk,” Ukpokodu says, “because oftentimes you’ll hear a member of one race saying something about another race, but hardly do you get them to sit together and talk. So it begins with that ignorance.”

Community engagement is evident in the play’s focus on the ways racial violence affects communities in general and—through a focus on certain ripped-from-the-headlines incidents—Kansas City in particular. Outreach also guided the decision to produce the play at the Melting Pot, which supports African American playwrights and work dedicated to social change.

Nicole Hodges Persley, KU’s vice provost for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging and a professor of American studies and African and African-American studies, is the artistic director for Melting Pot Theatre and will direct the play’s four performances May 30 to June 2. In addition to the discussion slated to take place after each performance, her staging will draw on theatre traditions that sometimes involve dialogue between actors and audience members during a play.

“We’ll be encouraging call and response with the audience and breaking the fourth wall,” Hodges Persley says, referencing the imaginary boundary that traditionally separates actors from theatregoers. “In African American and African theatre, it is part of the aesthetic to have a dialogue with the audience in the sense that the work is hoping to address things that those audiences are experiencing in their lives.” The Melting Pot hopes to attract a diverse audience to view and discuss the play, Hodges Persley says. “It’s really about having the audience be able to have a voice and be able to figure out how are they enacting and engaging their experience as citizens in the world around them. I think that’s important in a climate where people are very polarized about politics.”

Ukpokodu taught in his native Nigeria for five years after completing his PhD in theatre at KU, then returned to the Hill in 1990 to join the departments of theatre and African and African-American studies. He served as chair of African and African-American studies for several years, and in 2022 he became the first professor in the 50-year history of the program (one of the first such programs in the country) to be named a distinguished professor. He says he feels “lucky and glad” to be in the first cohort selected for the racial equity awards, which he views as an attempt by the University to create a racially sensitive campus that is fair to all.

“I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think there is any human being who has all the answers,” Ukpokodu says of his intention for “The Search for Anno Domini MMXXI-I-VI” to serve as an engine for community discussion. “If we did, we wouldn’t have these problems. From my point of view, the community, the people themselves, we have ideas about why things are as they are and what is the way to resolve these things. I am saying, ‘OK, you people who have watched the play, I want you to dig down and discuss the issues it raises.’”

Steven Hill is associate editor of Kansas Alumni magazine.

Photos by Steve Puppe
Issue 2, 2024


African and African-American studies, Faculty, Theatre
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