The U.S. President, Barack Obama, in one of his books, Dreams From My Father, said: “The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past.” Obama, though not of the same generation with Professor Wole Soyinka, the author of Death And The King’s Horseman, surely appear to be on the same thought wave with the Nobel Laureate, on the essence of Africans knowing their past, learning from that past to build a present that would determine the future. This stance, last Sunday, formed the focus of the play, Death And The King’s Horseman, presented by National Troupe of Nigeria (NTN), as part of activities organised by the Committee For Relevant Art (CORA) to mark 40 years of the docudrama and the 30 years of Professor Soyinka winning the Nobel Prize for literature.
Set in the Oyo Kingdom in the early 1940s, the historical drama opens with the King’s horsemen, Elesin Oba, (Toyin Osinaike) showing resentments at the way the community handles his welfare. As Oyo tradition demands, Elesin Oba must commit suicide before the late Alafin (King) must be buried. This belief is predicated on the view that Elesin’s spirit would precede and clear the way for the transition of Alafin’s spirit to the great beyond.
When the news of Elesin Oba wanting to fulfil his traditional role of passage for the late Alafin gets to Mr. Pilkins (Tom Godwin), the British Colonial Administrator, he quickly sends the police to stop and arrest him. He describes the age-long practise, as quaint and repugnant. Pilkins’ arrest of the torchbearer at the highest point of the rites of passage set off multiple tragic trajectories and dislocations within the kingdom.
Olunde (Victor Coker), the first son of the Elesin Oba, a medical student in England, who returns home to bury the father, as tradition demands commits suicide to fill the void created by the father’s arrest. The Elesin Oba also takes his own life in captivity, when the reactive natives present the corpse of Olunde to him.
Directed by Mike Anyanwu, the play explores themes, which include communal responsiveness and responsibility, arrogance, self-sacrifice, self-preservation, selfishness and sacrilege.
The casts aside showcasing mastery of their lines in words and body language, reveal the directors ability to manage large crowd on stage and also being able to manipulate the cast to play dual and multiple roles, as this was the case with the praise singers. Here, apart from singing the praises of Elesin Oba, they acted as wise men that counsel him and also speak in his defence before the Iya Loja (Lara Akinsola) and other women groups in the community. This minimal use of cast also made the stage less rowdy.
The lightening was appropriate as it showed the different periods of the day; night and day. This also aided comprehension and made clear the various happenings and scenes. The costume and music were apt. The costume tells the milieu, while the music, though in Yoruba expounds the story, advising the living on the need to live a clean life. From all facets, the production added a feather on the works of the director.
Going back to the story, one cannot fail to see the antithesis of culture –– acculturation or imposition of a belief. Here, Mr. Pilkins, a personification of British government and culture tried to use the machinery of colonial powers to truncate a practice that has unified the people for generations, made them what they are and allowed for peace and tranquillity in the community. It shows the duplicity of the colonial masters, who during the first world war coerced people, especially blacks to fight and die based on their behalf, so that they could remain relevant in world politics, but yet would not see any good in a person who chose to sacrifice his life to save his community from chaos. Because without the sacrifice, nothing works in the community –– no planting, trading, marriage and even births for both man and animal; life would be at a standstill.
The play highlights the tragic conqueences associated with diminished sensibility and understanding of intercultural behaviour, communication and tolerance between the British colonial rulers and the people of Oyo.
However, the overall lesson is not only embedded in the human sacrifice, as shown by Olunde, because across the globe there are people still killing themselves, either through suicide bombing or other means to draw attention to a cause or to effect a particular change in the society. Rather, it should be generalised to include the way people view life and death, knowing that every mortal must surely die and as such need to lead a good life, die for a good cause that would outlive one.
Calling on Africans, including those in the Diaspora to be conscious of their culture, think home and relate to their people, Soyinka used Olunde to tell Africans that irrespective of the qualification and status, they should never neglect their roots.