Death and the King's Horseman
Directed by John Vreeke
'Horseman's' culture clash
Review By Jayne Blanchard
Elements of classic Greek tragedy intermingle with Yoruban rites and beliefs in "Death and the King's Horseman," a vigorous and dreamlike play about racism and the effects of cultural superiority by Nigerian playwright and author Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Mr. Soyinka spent much of the late 1960s in solitary confinement as a political prisoner, which explains the bleak political tone of the play, written in 1975. After his imprisonment, he spent years living and writing in exile.
"Death and the King's Horseman" is based on real-life events that occurred in the city of Oyo, Nigeria, in 1946. The stiff upper-Brits of colonial Africa came up against Yoruban rituals after a district officer tried -- with disastrous repercussions -- to halt what he believed was a barbaric "native" practice.
When the play begins, the Yoruban king is dead, and, according to custom, Elesin (Felipe Harris), the king's chief horseman, must follow his ruler to heaven by committing ritual suicide. Honor and duty-bound to ancient beliefs, Elesin prepares to go nobly into the afterlife, but not before combining rites by taking a bride (Kamil J. Hazel), so that the unborn child created on the wedding night will maintain the continuum of life.
A chorus of market women (Barbara K. Asare-Bediako, Mwangala Changwe, Constance Ejuma, Letricia Hendrix, Micha Kemp) brings these rituals to vibrant life, whether they are gently undulating in time with the drumbeats, executing the forceful footfalls of Nigerian dance, or speaking their truths with a shared, powerful voice.
Simon Pilkings (Ian Armstrong), the powerful district officer, gets wind of what is about to happen -- the incessant drumbeats tip him off -- and stops Elesin's suicide. Not that Simon is particularly sensitive. When we first meet him and his blithe wife Jane (Nanna Ingvarsson), they are larking about in native death ritual robes and masks they plan on wearing to a fancy dress ball at the country club. The fact that their servant Joseph (Frank Britton) cannot bear to look at them because of the desecration of his culture's religious garments doesn't even register with the Pilkings. They find his beliefs incomprehensible, but then again, Simon seems to feel the same way about Christianity. He believes in England -- its might and its supposed supremacy.
What Simon, in his willful obstinacy, does not grasp is that by preventing Elesin's ritual suicide, the balance of the world is upset. In Mr. Soyinka's view, this world is a metaphysical place embracing the living, the dead and the unborn. A string of deaths that would befit a Shakespearean tragedy sets things right again.
Director John Vreeke illuminates Mr. Soyinka's dreamy allegory and heady visual dialogue with a sprawling production rife with symbolism, ritual movement, music, chanting and drumbeats. Set designer Misha Kachman evokes the clash between colonial and Nigerian cultures in a set consisting of two large, clay-red platforms and a floor painted with patterns you might find on African cloth. The colonial presence is not emphasized in the set, except in a breathtaking sequence where moving pictures of an English ball are projected onto the space's back wall while Simon and Jane gaily waltz beneath the garishly happy faces and dancing bodies.
The first act of "Death and the King's Horseman" moves at a stately pace, with plenty of exposition and lengthy explanations. The play grows in gravity and pathos in the second act, which emphasizes stark emotion over speechifying.
"Life is honor," says Elesin in the beginning of the play. In the Washington Shakespeare Company's ardent staging, Mr. Soyinka's work shows that when one society suppresses another, both are diminished, damned to a shadowland ruled by fear and misunderstanding.
A CurtainUp DC Review
Death and the King's HorsemanReview by Rich See
"To prevent one death, you will actually make other deaths? Ah, great is the wisdom of the white race. "
-- Iyaloja, Mother of the Market
Based upon true life events that took place during 1946 in British colonized Oyo, Nigeria, Washington Shakespeare Company's Death and the King's Horseman tackles a difficult subject with good results.
Wole Soyinka's writing is poetic, intense and requires a great deal of concentration from the audience. The playwright dislikes having his work defined as just a simple "clash of cultures" story and instead prefers to focus it as one man's struggle to fulfill his role to his tribe and dead king. As it is written, Mr. Soyinka's play about Elesin the Horseman examines a tribe/society's beliefs and how these are filtered into individual behavior and personal choices. It also is also a play about two clashing cultures and the surprisingly similar mindsets they share concerning duty and loyalty.
When Elesin's king passes away, he is -- by virtue of his birth and station -- required to kill himself and accompany his leader to the afterlife. (Similar to Western soldiers being led to die in a war that they did not choose to start.) When news of this tribal custom reaches the District Officer, Simon Pilkings, he decides to save the horseman from his fate by imprisoning him for the night.
Not entirely humanitarian, Pilkings chooses this action in order to keep any unpleasantness away from the colony during the visit of Britain's royal prince. In addition, he is offended by the custom and does not understand how deeply imbedded this aspect of life is within the Yoruba culture. In point of fact, Pilkings is not cognizant of any importance cultural traditions and beliefs may have to the people he is charged with overseeing.
Elesin, for his part, is demanding a new bride before he embarks on his death journey, which is a forboding of his weakening faith. Meanwhile his son Olunde has unexpectedly returned from England (where he has fled to attend medical school) to bury his father after the horseman's death ceremony. Things completely fall apart with tragic results when Pilkings has Elesin arrested. The District Officer's interruption of the ancient ritual reveals the doubt in Elesin's faith, the hypocrisy within Olunde and the other tribal members, and the prejudice inherent in Pilkings, his wife and the other British soldiers.
Director John Vreeke has devised a sweeping production that unfolds in unexpected ways on Misha Kachman's bare set. Mr. Kachman uses the entirety of WSC's staging area and has adorned its floor with African designs and added two raised dais. Brooke Kidd's choreography takes advantage of the space to create the African dances that permeate the play. And Ayun Fedorcha's lighting adds nuances to the actor's performances, while Erik Trester's projections produce an interesting special effect.
The sixteen-member cast keeps our attention throughout the show and offers some terrific performances. Felipe Harris' Elesin the Horseman shows the fragility of a man caught in a situation he did not expect to encounter. Towanda Underdue is an exceedingly strong Iyaloja, Mother of the Market. Ian Armstrong and Nanna Ingvarsson are sympathetic as Simon and Jane Pilkings, two products of the British Empire mentality. Frank Britton's houseboy Joseph shows a deferential attitude that belies the seething disgust he actually feels. Joe Lewis provides a humorous Sergeant Amusa. And Clifton Alphonzo Duncan's Olunde is a suave, intelligent man, who reveals little but says much.
With our world looking at how far respect should go in allowing various cultural and religious groups to practice their beliefs, Death and the King's Horseman is a cautionary tale. Washington Shakespeare Company presents an interesting production that not so subtly asks us all to examine our own preconceived ideas about life, death, strength, duty and tolerance.
Yoruba Culture Valued in Revival
Vreeke stages Soyinka's drama at Clark Street Playhouse.
Review By Brad Hathaway
March 3, 2006
The Washington Shakespeare
Theatre's home just north of Crystal City on Clark Street is approaching
the end of the road, but there is a great deal of life left in the institution
yet. "Death and the Kings Horseman" is the first of the last - the first
production by the company in this, their last year in the playhouse which
is to be demolished for redevelopment after the final show this summer.
February 9 - March 12, 2006
Death and the King's Horseman
Reviewed February 14
An elegantly staged, intellectually engaging drama
In 1986, the Nobel Prize in Literature went to Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka for a body of work illuminating the values of his homeland and the history of the relationships between African and European peoples and cultures. The announcement of that award cited this play as being "in the nature of an antique tragedy with the cultic sacrificial death as theme. The relationship between the unborn, the living and the dead, to which Soyinka reverts several times in his works, is fashioned here with very strong effect." Indeed, it is. At least here, in the staging of John Vreeke, the moral force of Soyinka's argument is well balanced with the dramatic aspect of the story which, Soyinka assures us, is based on actual events that took place in the Yoruba city of Oyo in Nigeria in 1946.
Storyline: The King of the Yoruba has died and the time approaches for the man who has the honor of being the King's Horseman to commit suicide to accompany him to heaven in the tradition of his tribe. The country, however, is occupied by the colonialist British who view such traditions as primitive. They determine to prevent the act with no care for the cultural consequences of such intervention.
In the "Author's Note" printed in the program, Soyinka objects to the description of his play as dealing with "a clash of cultures" because such a label implies some sort of equality between the cultures. He certainly doesn't straddle the line with an attempt to give balanced arguments for each side. If you have any doubts as to the opinion of the author about which of the two cultures is superior, you won't after the scene between Nanna Ingvarsson as the wife of the British District Officer and Clifton Alphonzo Duncan as the son of the horseman who efficiently analyzes the essence of the colonial mindset and eloquently states the case against it. This one scene, so eloquently written, effectively staged with Duncan one step above Ingvarsson, and cleanly performed with an honest sense on both sides of the obvious fundamental truth of their views, delivers the author's judgment eloquently. The key to its dramatic impact is the honesty with which the writing puts the pro-colonial view and the sincerity with which Ingvarsson delivers them. Still, Duncan's elegant responses are all you need to know about Soyinka's view of the world.
The Horseman here is Felipe Harris. While Soyinka's text says that the Horseman is "a man of enormous vitality" who "speaks, dances and sings with that infectious enjoyment of life which accompanies all his actions," Harris plays it a bit more subdued as a man with a heavy weight on his shoulders. After all, he has just lost his King and soon will lose his life in an act of duty as well as honor. That additional layer of character sets up the final scenes well, but it takes a while for his performance to settle in. Ian Armstrong throws himself into the posturing role of the British District Officer (referred to by the horseman as "ghostly one") while the quiet dignity of Kamil J. Hazel as the horseman's bride contrasts nicely with the passion of Towanda Underdue as the "Mother of the Market" who takes the horseman to task for his failures. Richard Mancini has a marvelous single scene as the embodiment of colonial superciliousness.
Unlike many productions which seem to line up just the standard assembly of designers (you can almost hear the producers say "lets see, we need set, costumes, lights, sound . . . that should do it") the Washington Shakespeare Company and director Vreeke have obviously approached this project from scratch, assembling the unique talents needed for this unique project. Yes, there is the fine set with two circular platforms on a floor painted with Yoruban designs and the costumes are fine. But the design team reaches beyond the norm with movement choreography that is fluid and vital and a sound design that features the music and sounds of both cultures and especially the drone of distant drums which give the piece a special resonance. Finally, there is a fabulous piece of film projected on the one white wall of the theater. Just where could projection designer Erik Trester have come up with this black and white image of a ball?
Written by Wole Soyinka. Directed by John Vreeke. Movement choreography by Brooke Kidd. Design: Misha Kachman (set) Genevieve Williams (costumes) Erik Trester (projections) Ayun Fedorcha (lights) Matthew Nielson (sound) Ray Gniewek (photography) Eryn Chaney (stage manager). Cast: Ian Armstrong, Barbara K. Asare-Bediako, Frank Britton, Mwangala Changwe, Maurice E. Clemons, Clifton Alphonzo Duncan, Constance Ejuma, Felipe Harris, Kamil J. Hazel, Letricia Hendrix, Nanna Ingvarsson, Micha Kemp, Joe Lewis, Richard Mancini, Nick Scott, Towanda Underdue.