Oakland’s Poet Laureate

Ayodele Nzinga chosen for inaugural post

Oakland selected poet, playwright and community activist Ayodele Nzinga as the city’s inaugural poet laureate, city officials announced this week.

Nzinga is the founding producer and director of the West Oakland theater company Lower Bottom Playaz, established in 1999. She’s also the founding director of Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation, which produces BAMBDFEST, an international arts and cultural festival celebrating the arts in the Black community.

“Her decades-long commitment to Oakland’s art scene will feed the richness of her storytelling as she nurtures creativity in others,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement.

Nzinga is the author of at least two books of poetry: SorrowLand Oracle, a collection of spells, incantations and prayers; and The Horse Eaters, described as an origin tale, a reclamation of memory and a movement toward wholeness in thought.

“All of Nzinga’s art is like this,” wrote East Bay Express reporter Darwin BondGraham in a 2015 article. “An actor, playwright, poet and producer, her work is deeply personal and political, but not in an individualistic sense. Her productions spotlight marginalized peoples, telling stories about threatened communities, often written by artists who themselves are pushed to the edges of American theater. Her work is boldly Black, speaking to what she calls the North-American-African experience. Telling the stories of Black lives on stage isn’t an idle exercise for Nzinga.”

Nzinga holds a masters of fine arts in writing and consciousness and a doctorate in transformative education & change, and is recognized by the August Wilson House as the only director in the world to direct August Wilson’s complete Century Cycle in chronological order. Nzinga’s work for the stage has been reviewed internationally.

“I was at the Black Futurists Speak show,” said Oakland resident Nicole Avant, “and I truly felt the positive, transformative power of her words. My friends and I were captivated by her performance style.”

Nzinga said she is “overjoyed” with her selection as Oakland’s first poet laureate.

“I look forward to representing ‘The Town,’ and [to] the honor of bringing poetry to the people!” she said in a statement.

As poet laureate, Nzinga will make an inaugural address, partner with the city’s youth poet laureate Myra Estrada on a reading series, deliver four readings in Oakland and write a poem that commemorates the city.

“Whether in the visual performing arts, music or literature, the talents of the Town’s artists are world-renowned and deserve recognition and financial support,” J. K. Fowler, cultural affairs commissioner and chair of the poet laureate selection team, said in a statement. 

City officials closed nominations on May 19 for Oakland’s inaugural poet laureate, and five members of the city’s literary community selected Nzinga from other nominees based on five criteria that included, among other things, their poetic work and their understanding of civic stories around belonging, culture and equity.

Nzinga will serve a two-year term, until May 2023. Her selection comes with a $5,000 honorarium.

The date for Nzinga’s inaugural address has not yet been set. 

—Bay City News and East Bay Express

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