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When a man is torn between duties, conviction

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She has mastered the art of the big stage. Every festive period, the Executive Producer of BAP Productions, Mrs. Bolanle Austen-Peters, has something new and thrilling to offer theatre-loving Lagosians.

And she has made historical drama her forte, where she believes Nigeria and Africa have rich stories to tell the world. Starting out with Saro and Waka the Musicals, Austen-Peters has given theatre audiences and pundits a lot to think about with her bold stage statements that include dramatizations of the larger-than-life lives of legendary music star Fela and the Yoruba heroine Moremi.

However, Wole Soyinka’s historical play, Death and the King’s Horseman, is perhaps the text Austen-Peters, who now doubles as director in her productions, took on during the Sallah holidays. And for a play reputed to be crafted in the best of Soyinkaresque poetic tradition (like The Swamp Dwellers and A Dance of the Forests) that many critics believe is unapproachable, BAP Productions did a neat job of interpretation that the audience cheered every scene at the casts’ superb delivery that enlivened the stage and rendered it quite a delight to watch.

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Of course, Death and the Kings Horseman is a tragic play about the unraveling of one of Africa’s traditions that appear barbaric to modern imagination. Soyinka, however, manages to enliven it with flashes of rich Yoruba lyrical lore in the alluring songs and proverbs that pepper the plot and that are the everyday life of the people and that of the palace, which has lost its first citizen who needs his horseman, Elesin Oba (as Olarotimi Fakunle) to commit suicide so as to accompany him as guide in the other world. But Elesin Oba is a man who loves life to excess, and in the twilight of his earthly existence before he joins his king, he does not fail to indulge in his usual excesses by taking a new bride to empty his heavy loin of the fluids of life to make his journey light and also leave a slice of himself behind at the critical hour of his passing.

Elesin Oba is a man torn between duty and questionable conviction – duty to tradition and conviction to that same tradition. How does he marry conviction with duty? That’s the question Elesin Oba wrestles with in his final hour, when the forces that are to bear him away arrive and we see him in mortal struggle – to go or not to go to fulfill his historic duty of providing escort for his late king in the afterlife. While his spirit seems willing to make the final crossing, his will to continue living and enjoy the joys life has to offer become a burden he is unable to shed before the rampaging force of outside civilization (colonialism, represented by the white District Officer (DO) – Simon Pilkins – Fares Bolous) catches up with him to thwart and rupture the ancient tradition of the Oyo people.

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Elesin Oba is the architect of his own fate and misfortune. While haranguing the Iyaloja (as Mawuyon Ogun) for a befitting treat before departing earth to join his late king in the afterlife, who are all eager for him to fulfill his historic duty to tradition, Iyaloja and Olohun Iyo do not spare a moment to remind Elesin Oba of the gravity of excessive indulgence before his final hour. But he brushes their objections aside and insists on satiating his desires for the last time. Elesin Oba wants to mate a virgin so a plantain sapling could sprout from the ashes of the old, his passing, but this turns out an unwitting trap that binds him to earth and prevents him from fulfilling his duty to sacred tradition. Ultimately, Pilkins becomes the wedge that finally blindspots Elesin Oba to his duty.

The consequences are dire. It was a struggle for Elesin Oba to let his first son Olunde (Moshood Fattah) travel to the whie man’s land to study medicine. Pilkins had prevailed over him and had sent the boy abroad, where he also became a keen observer of the ways of the white man, which contradict the African ways he is used to. It becomes an ironic twist as he soon suffers the meddlesomeness of the white man, who presides over the lives of his Oyo people. On learning about the oba’s death, he hurries home to bury his father. But the events that play out spin out of control; on the night he arrives, there’s disturbance in the town and while he’s at the DO’s house, his father, who is supposed to be dead, is ‘arrested’ for “committing death” by the security forces. Elesin Oba is brought before his son who had since presumed him dead.

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The sheer contempt of Olunde for a father who is not man enough to honour his duty for his people is staggering. Olunde walks away from his father without looking at him; for him he has died and ceased to be his father. Elesin Oba is cut to the quick. What is worse, DO Pilkins imprisons him so he does not act rash, so he can save him from himself. Alas.

As events spin to a head, Olunde is compelled to be the father that his own father failed to be. He takes the place of his father, as Elesin Oba, to accompany the late oba in the afterlife in order to preserve the sanctity of tradition, where his own father fails in his duty, thus subverting tradition. Elesin Oba cannot take the humiliation, which Iyaloja also piles high in her harangue for his failure as a faithful servant of the people and tradition. Seeing his son taking his place in history, Elesin Oba has nowhere to hide; he takes the only action available to him to end a life of ignominy.

BAP Productions’ interpretive dramaturgy was topnotch. Having perfected the Broadway theatre tradition with the marriage of performance, music and dance, it was easy for Austen-Peters to marry these and more in Death and the King’s Horseman. The use of multi-media too helped in amplifying moods in the performance. The opening market and Elesin Oba’s struggle with death are apt scenes and harmonious use of multi-media that enhances the interpretation of the play.

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