Rex Obano on ‘City College’: How free is free speech in academia?

Thursday 21 October 2021

Rex Obano discusses the conflicts and issues confronted in his play ‘City College’, which is being broadcast this autumn on BBC Radio 3.


Rex writes: “‘City College’ is a radio play about a black history university professor on the verge of retirement who makes a bold statement contrary to what he has taught for thirty years in order to test the limits of free speech. During the inevitable maelstrom he comes face to face with his own personal demons.

I attended City College of the City University of New York 30 years ago as an undergraduate and it was where I was politically and creatively awakened. The fictional City College in my play is emblematic of that awakening. The play was also inspired by dissenting voices that are shut down in the public debate, either by a polarising news media or by the sanctity of ‘group-think’ and by those who believe that there isn’t diversity of thought within groups lumped together under the umbrella of ‘diversity’. And especially at universities which are traditionally the crucible for expressing and debating alternative ideas regardless of whether you agree with the expressed views or not. How a conflict arises between student and lecturer around the ownership and interpretation of ideas lies at the centre of this play. Is a black professor working in a British university the ultimate expert on black history? How much do colonialism and neo-colonialism play a part in the ownership of black history?

But another reason why City College is a very personal play for me is because of the scenario which resonates with the creation of drama: characters, stories are all ideas which begin in the mind of the playwright, yet their ownership and interpretation can become the subject of conflict and debate once the process of production begins. At the end of the day, whose story is told: the writer’s original voice, or something more mediated, transformed by the relations of production: the cast, the director, the producer?”

About the speaker

Rex Obano has written for the stage, television, radio and film. He spent a year in the United States on placement where he read Playwriting at City College of New York and is working towards a PhD in Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London. His plays have twice been shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award and he was awarded the Roland Rees Bursary in 2018. His theatre includes ‘Slaves’ (Theatre 503) and ‘The Door Never Closes’ (Almeida Theatre). He was the dramaturg on ‘Surge’ by Jay Barnard (Albany Theatre). His radio includes ‘Someone’s Making A Killing In Nigeria’, ‘Burned To Nothing’, ‘Lover’s Rock’, ‘As Innocent As You Can Get’, ‘Oil On Water ‘and ‘The Moors of England’. He is also part of the writing team (with Roy Williams and Winsome Pinnock) for the long running radio series tracing three Windrush families from 1946 to the present day – ‘Faith, Hope and Glory’. He is part of the writing team of the television series ‘Southwark’ (BritBox/Silverprint) based on ‘Black Tudors’ by Miranda Kauffman and ‘Shakespeare and Hathaway – Private Investigators’ (BBC One). Rex has several other theatre and television projects in development. His play ‘City College’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this autumn.

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