Vincent Ogoti is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of African Cultural Studies, where he is completing a dissertation on African Theatre. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and he was also a Fulbright Scholar at Yale University’s Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies.
Tell us more about your dissertation project.
“My dissertation studies historical theatre that engages the afterlives of revolutions in East Africa through the indices of violence, trauma, and memory. I use the body as a category of analysis to examine how theatre practitioners make sense of violence, trauma, and memory.”
In addition to your interest in researching theater, you also are a playwright! Tell us about A Shadow in the Sun. What was your writing process, and what did you value most about the performances?
“The University of Nairobi Traveling Theatre staged A Shadow in the Sun on August 9, 2019. The play tells Sifa and Imani’s story, two women wrestling with complex discourses in an age of contending modernities. Their lives portray emerging challenges that underpin the intersection of secular and religious or legal forces to shape the conceptualization of right and wrong. The play interrogates how Kenyan society handles complex issues. It problematizes challenging topics such as sexuality and their representation in art to show us that when we encounter problems that are not amenable to any easy solution, we should appeal to moral imagination. Moral imagination demands, as John Paul Lederach, a peacebuilding scholar, writes: ‘the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that include our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.’
The performance of A Shadow in the Sun underscored the idea that more than any other time in history, we are plunged into the struggle between the secular and religious and the legal—a struggle that threatens to tear some communities apart. The play showed that we are bound to make mistakes when we take simplistic approaches to solve these problematic issues.
I started writing the play in 2018 and completed it in early 2019. During that time, I was engaged in conversations about gender and sexuality, and the play provided me with a space for making sense of the different discourses about sexuality in Africa. It was my second play performed at the University of Nairobi. The first one, The Apocalypse, was staged when I was a junior at the institution.”
What can you tell us about your article, “Soundscape and Narrative Dynamics,” and the broader themes that cut across all your projects over the last few years?
“The article is based on my master’s degree qualifying paper. I was interested in new forms of creative writing from Africa, and I wanted to study how contemporary African novelists write about complex issues such as sexuality. I specifically analyzed Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. I argued for a sonic reading of the novel as an approach that not only allows us to unravel complexities often ignored in an ordinary textual analysis but also extends possibilities of reading what would otherwise be considered as a schematic text with a predictable plot that is intentionally crafted to highlight the novel’s morality. Sonic reading goes beyond the linguistic textuality of the novel to consider its soundscape—all aspects of sound in the novel.
Since publishing the paper, my interest in the possibilities of the African novel as a medium that offers a multi-sensory engagement that goes beyond ordinary textual analysis has increased. I am collaborating with Professor Reginold Royston to write a paper on ‘New orality and African literary forms in the era of audiobooks.’ We are looking into the new possibilities opened up by audio technologies and how they transform the reading public—readers, listeners, consumers, audience, and fans. Given the importance of oral aesthetics within African literature, we examine the relationship between printed and spoken texts and what methods of ‘close listening’ are appropriate to these sonic new media.
Many themes run through my research: performance, gender, sexuality, religion, violence, the body, sound, and African literature. I am generally interested in how the intersection of different forces—religious, secular, and legal—shape the lives of minorities in Africa. I trace the interplay of these forces in African cultural production such as theatre, novel, photography, and new media. My location at an interdisciplinary department has allowed me to acquire tools to engage in different research projects that would not be tenable in a discipline-bound department.”
How does your research influence your teaching?
“As a community-engaged scholar, I try to incorporate my field research experiences into my teaching. I have had opportunities to serve as a teaching assistant for different courses in African Cultural Studies, History, and the African Studies Program. I draw from my extensive knowledge of Africa to design classroom experiences that allow my students to gain new perspectives about Africa and learn how to produce knowledge about Africa.”
Congratulations on winning the 2020 African Studies Program Teaching Fellows Award. Tell us about your course and what you have learned over the last year, as you have designed it.
“I am one of the inaugural African Studies Teaching Fellow. The fellowship provides me with funding and pedagogical support to develop a course for summer 2021. I have designed a 400-level course on ‘Nonviolence and Social Change in Africa.’ The course seeks to acquaint students with the theory and practice of active nonviolence as a method of social change and a way of life. Students will analyze various readings, films, experiential activities, and discussions to develop the understanding and skills for practicing and promoting nonviolent action. Students will examine the politics of nonviolence through a comparative exploration of the political ideas and political careers of its most well-known twentieth-century advocates, M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. They will also learn how nonviolence functions as practical politics, such as tactics, techniques, and strategies that mobilize and channel popular protest in constructive directions. I am grateful for the African Studies Program for enabling me to develop the course, and I look forward to working with the program to offer the class to other populations on campus and beyond.”
Where do you hope to see the field of African Studies go in the future? Any advice for your fellow scholars in the making?
“I cannot think of a better time to be an Africanist. The field has matured and provided us with opportunities to reflect on its legacy—to chart a new course in conceptualizing epistemological stances that privilege the well-being of those who identify or are identified as Africans. I encourage young and emerging scholars to break boundaries—disciplinary, epistemological, or ideological—and embrace the sublime as well as the messy in African Studies. Transformation often emerges from unlikely spaces!”
Produced by Carly Lucas