Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Street Stories with Gbenga Akinnagbe @ Rutgers-Newark

Gbenga Akinnagbe

Two wonderful colleagues of mine, my English department chair Professor Frances Bartkowski, and Senior Associate Dean of Faculty and Associate Professor of Sociology Sherri-Ann Butterfield, decided last year to co-teach an undergraduate course revolving around the former HBO series The Wire. The five-season series was one of my favorite TV shows of the last decade and one I blogged about a few times in the past. But nothing I have written about the series could compare to the fastidious, thoroughly engaging interdisciplinary approach Fran and Sherri-Ann are taking in introducing this richly provocative program to Rutgers undergraduates.

As part of their class, they invited to campus actor, activist and entrepreneur Gbenga Akinnagbe, who played one of The Wire's profound villains, Chris Partlow, to speak not just to their class, but to the larger Rutgers and Newark communities.  Rutgers-Newark's College of Arts and Science Departments of English and Sociology and the Paul Robeson Campus Center: Office of Service Learning and Student Development sponsored the Washington, DC-native's visit.

Akinnagbe spoke about his upbringing as a Nigerian American, some of the struggles he had encountered over the years and how wrestling helped him in multiple ways, including gaining a scholarship to Bucknell University, his career as an activist, and how he has gone on to participate in civil and social activism, both in the USA, where he has been active in opposing the New York Police Department's racist "stop and frisk" policy, and overseas, including with Occupy Nigeria. He also talked a bit about current projects, including his recent work as a producer of multiple films in 2013, among them the documentary Children of the Wind, and the feature film Newlyweeds (2013), has received a lot of industry buzz.

Akinnagbe patiently answered questions, many of them about his preparation for and the effects of playing Chris Partlow, whom he deemed a "sociopath," as well as his roles in programs like Graceland, for over an hour, never flagging and frequently and smoothly shifting from seriousness to humor, all while providing a richer picture of who he is and many of the things he's been up to. I asked him about balancing acting and activism, and he responded that he was still trying to figure out how to do so, but he is not giving up on lending his voice, time and platform to causes he believes in. Afterwards I expressed my wish that he and some of the other members of The Wire reconvene on another project that would allow them--like Seth Rogen's film repertory--to display their talents on screen, and he said that some of the actors do appear in Newlyweeds, but that he would love to do more projects bringing them all together. I hope it happens soon! Many thanks to Fran, Sherri-Ann, Mr. Akinnagbe, and everyone else who made his visit possible.

Fran Bartkowski and Sherri-Ann Butterfield
Sherri-Ann with Gbenga Akinnagbe

Gbenga Akinnagbe
One of the Rutgers-Newark
students with Akinnagbe
after his talk

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