- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

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.


WHAT: “Death and the King’s Horseman” by Wole Soyinka

WHERE: Washington Shakespeare Company, 601 South Clark St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through March 12.

TICKETS: $22 to $30

PHONE: 800/494-8497


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