Mary Moody Northen Theatre, through Feb. 24
Running time: 2 hr, 25 min
In the Nigerian city of Oyo in 1946, ruling British officials prevented a tribal chief from committing a ritualistic suicide. It was a case of misunderstanding and much uproar, and from this historical seed, Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka grew his much celebrated Death and the King's Horseman.
Elesin, a prominent chief, must die a month after the king passes in order to guide the king's spirit to the next world. He's been assigned this task since the day he was born, and the entire Yoruba tribe expects him to keep their world in harmony by fulfilling his duty. Knowing that if there's one day to be the cock of the walk, it's his last on earth, Elesin prowls about like a prizefighter, decides to take a sumptuous new bride, and dances to his heart's content.
The British, having caught wind of the planned death, decide to intervene, and disaster ensues. Horseman represents the Brits as the comical caricature of colonialism, at best referring to the Nigerians as Jane Goodall might refer to her chimps and at worse slandering them as "sly, devious bastards." Little is at stake for the British in this play or in Nigeria, save for impressing the prince, so they inject their morals wherever they see fit. For the Yoruba, though, everything will be at stake if Elesin doesn't commit suicide and play his role of intercessor to the other world: Their people will be condemned, the universe out of order, their future in doubt.
But while Soyinka's play has its share of colonial lament, the blame game in Horseman isn't nearly as black-and-white as it seems. The British certainly play their part with discrimination, racial slurs, and total lack of understanding, but neither Soyinka nor his Yoruba protagonists hold the English solely responsible for Elesin's botched suicide. Blaming the Man – the White Man, in this case – is the easy out. It solves nothing. There is more power in Horseman's climax because it turns away from the British, is between Yoruba tribe members, and focuses on greater issues like the power of death, the nature of man, and how humanity connects to the earth and the world beyond. Despite its colonial context, the heart of Horseman lies in a much deeper place.
It warrants mentioning that Death and the King's Horseman is also a beautifully written play. Borrowing from the mythology and metaphors of his homeland, Soyinka galvanizes the English language with a lyricism it's rarely given. In this production at St. Edward's University, Marc Pouhé as Elesin and Richard Romeo as the Praise Singer deserve recognition for both embracing and delivering Horseman's wonderful poetry. Director Stephen Gerald creates many dynamic images onstage, and the high energy that the play demands never flags. The Mary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Ed's has co-produced Horseman with ProArts Collective, a local nonprofit that helps produce the artistic works of the African diaspora, and the collaboration has paid off in the form of lively drumming and singing, as well as a vibrant stage design by Denise Forbes-Erickson.
A magnificent play, Death and the King's Horseman transcends categorization with moments of comedy, poetry, music, philosophy, and drama. Soyinka speaks beautifully on death, life, and human nature in the play, and Mary Moody Northen Theatre and ProArts give us the full range in their vibrant, captivating, and true production.
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