When he became Artistic Director at OSF, Bill Rauch promised to broaden the vision of the Festival to include leading works from cultures other than Western European. Last year, the Festival gave us the Sanskrit classic, "The Clay Cart." This year, Rauch is breaking new ground with the lavishly staged "Death and the King's Horseman" by Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, directed by the talented Chuck Smith, resident director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
"Death and the King's Horseman" is the story of a true event that took place in colonial Nigeria in 1946. In Soyinka's hands, it transcends simply being a story of the clash of cultures. Here, Soyinka chronicles a society in transition, a time when a people's traditional beliefs about the relationship between this world and the spiritual world are threatened.
As the play opens, the Yoruba tribe's king has died and it now falls to the king's horseman, Elesin (Derrick Lee Weeden), to guide his spirit into the next world. Elesin has lived his entire life in preparation for this moment, for the ritual suicide that will take him beyond the divide, to prepare the way for his friend and sovereign and to function as an intermediary for his Yoruba people between this world and the next. Elesin prides himself on his readiness to perform this act.
To be sure, because he is seen as the messenger between this world and what lies beyond, Elesin has led a charmed life. No one has ever denied him anything — to do so would run the risk of having a bad reputation in that other world when Elesin arrives there. Elesin even has his own Praise Singer (G. Valmont Thomas), who also functions as a sort of conscience and a spiritual guide.
Elesin is a man of great eloquence, tremendous charisma and voracious appetites. On this, his final day, in the market that is the center of the Yoruba world, he sees a beautiful young woman. He demands her of Iyaloja, the "mother" of the market (Perri Gafney) and, although the girl is betrothed to Iyaloja's son, she is bestowed upon Elesin. This last carnal temptation becomes his fatal flaw.
Overlaid onto this volatile situation is the ever-present British colonial administration. The district officer, Pilkings (Rex Young), is well meaning but woefully ignorant of the people he has been sent out to rule. The British Resident (James Edmondson) is even more culturally tone deaf. The British have recklessly sought to impose Western European customs, religion and values on the Yoruba society. In the case of the badly treated and comically attired local constabulary, it is amusing. In the case of the officials' servants, it is humiliating. In the case of the society at large — and especially as Pilkings seeks to stop Elesin's suicide — it is disastrous.
While much of the first scene is filled with poetic exposition, that long interval in the marketplace is indispensable to put the audience into Yoruba tribal culture. With the interchange between Elesin and the Praise-Singer, the audience becomes accustomed to the cadences, the poetry and the worldview that is essential to this play.
Soyinka was raised in Nigeria, between the two worlds of traditional Yoruba beliefs and imposed western culture. He was born into a family of the Yoruba tribe. His father was headmaster at an Anglican school for the African population. His mother was a devout Anglican Christian but also a leader among the women of the local market. Soyinka was educated in British schools in Nigeria and later attended Leeds University in England (graduating with an honors degree in English Literature).
It is a gift to the audience that Soyinka writes in English with the cadence and poetry of the Yoruba language. The OSF production, as directed by Chuck Smith, captures that poetry and adds drummers (led by Adebisi Adeleke) and graceful dance (by choreographer Randy Duncan) as constant backdrops to the story. Dramaturg Olesugun Ojewuyi has contributed immeasurably to the production.
It is OSF's gift to the audience to have Derrick Lee Weeden play Elesin. Weeden's own charismatic presence, beautiful voice and physical grace is the very embodiment of what Soyinka's character represents.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. Perri Gaffney is a commanding Mother Iyaloja. Kevin Kenerly beautifully plays a hapless native policeman, scorned by both whites and blacks — a departure from the powerful characters Kenerly usually portrays. Emily Sophia Knapp is the British administrator's young wife, trying to understand this new world around her but, ultimately, rooted in a sense of superiority. Tyrone Wilson has a strong small part as the Pilkings' servant — far more dignified and intelligent than they will ever be. Ryan Anderson plays is Elesin's eldest son, Olunde, a man formed by two worlds and with a deeper understanding of each than their respective inhabitants.
Scenic designer Linda Buchanan created a colorful but spare set, aided by a curtained scrim that is used effectively in the second act. Costume designer Lydia Tanji has created equally colorful and effective costumes for the Yoruba and the British cultures. Original music and sound design is by the consistently excellent Michael Keck.
With "Death and the King's Horseman," we are given a glimpse into a world we would otherwise not know and the consequences of a history we know little about. It is a profound and moving experience. And not to be missed.