By: Ronnie Ruff Death and The King’s Horseman WSC
Death and The Kings Horseman written by Wole Soyinka is thought by many to be his greatest work but it is rarely produced in the United States. The play is an aggressive venture for WSC but they historically have made it a point to choose plays that challenge and stretch their horizons. Death and The King’s Horseman is a story of cultures and how most of the time we can learn something from the seemingly more primitive one.Elesin (Felipe Harris) is the chief horseman to the Yoruban King — according to Yoruban tribal law the death of the King must be followed by the ritual suicide of the King’s Horseman so that his spirit can continue to serve his master in the afterlife. The first act is celebration of East African – Yoruban culture which is filled with dancing, singing and amazing drumming. Elesin and the women of the marketplace are dressed in bright costume and the atmosphere is celebratory. At the last minute the local British District Officer, Mr Pilkings (Ian Armstrong) intervenes, the suicide being viewed as barbaric and illegal by the British authorities. The second act is somber and gut wrenching. Elesin’s son, Olunde (Clifton Alphonzo Duncan) returns from England expecting to find his father dead, instead he finds his world turned topsy-turvy by the British. Olunde takes on the responsibility of his father and commits ritual suicide in his place so as to restore the honor of his family. Faced with the consequences of his deeds, Elesin commits suicide as well, thereby condemning his spirit to a abject existence in the after life.
Felipe Harris gives a expressive, fervent performance as Elesin Oba. His verbal sparing with Lyaloja (Towanda Underdue) is the highlight of the play. Lyaloja, the “mother” of the market, takes center stage early — her interpretation is powerful and full of depth. Nanna Ingvarsson portrays Mrs. Pilkings and her scene with Olunde is one of the production’s most fascinating. It is a classic struggle of Colonialism vs. that of the Yoruban culture. Olunde has an intelligent well reasoned answer for every Pro-Colonial point taken by Mrs. Pilkings. This scene makes evident Soyinka’s world views without them seeming overbearing.
The scenic design by Misha Kachman is simple but impressive. The Clarke street floor is painted in an African swirling motif and there are two raised, round platforms at opposite ends of the stage — one serves as Elesin’s jail cell in the second act. The far wall is painted plain white and becomes a giant projection screen that is filled with dancing British colonials during the play’s masquerade ball. The effect is positively brilliant without being overdone or campy. The costumes by Genevieve Williams were superb from the traditional African designs to the starched British kakis and red fezzes.The sonic effects by Matthew Nielson, especially the drumming, are tremendous. Speakers are setup at both ends of the long stage area and it serves as a very wide stereo effect. There were times when the drumming made it difficult to understand some of the plays dialogue but I am sure that will be corrected early in the play’s run.
Death and the King’s Horseman is an epic undertaking and director John Veereke does an incredible job of presenting it. Pleasing choreography, fine acting and a wonderful story all make for a triumphant production that leaves one to ponder if our idea of “civilization” is better than anyone else’s.