Modern America applauds individualism, praising the people who work their way to the top. However, such values hold far less weight for the Yoruba people of Nigeria portrayed in Wole Soyinka’s 1976 play, “Death and the King’s Horseman.” For them duty to the community is what matters the most. The Harvard-Radcliffe Drama Club (HRDC) has taken on this challenging dichotomy between the individual and the collective with a keen and nuanced eye, resulting in a compelling production.
Directed by Abigail F. Schoenberg ’12, “Death and the King’s Horseman,” ran through Saturday November 20. The play is set in Nigeria in 1944, when it was still a British colony. A powerful Yoruba king has just died, and according to tradition, his chief horseman Elesin (Yi Jun Tan ’13) must commit ritual suicide and accompany his lord into the afterlife or risk a curse on the whole community. However, he is interrupted by Simon Pilkings, (Allen J. MacLeod ’14) the local British official, who views the practice as barbaric. The results of this intervention are catastrophic, as the community lays the blame for this failure on Elesin as well as the British authorities.
The play could have easily become a heavy-handed commentary on race and colonialism. In an attempt to avoid this, casting for the play is colorblind.
This did not in any way, however, detract from the production, which boasts impressive performances all around. Nevertheless, several actors rise above the high bar set by their fellow cast members and give some truly memorable performances. Tan is compelling as Elesin, expertly handling his character’s conflicting sense of duty and love of life. He portrays a man caught between his people’s needs and his individual desires with commendable grace and subtlety.
Rachel V. Byrd ’13 also gives an exceptional performance as Iyaloja, one of the head women in the community, a voice of Yoruba collectivism and societal duty. She portrays her character’s multifaceted personality with great depth and clarity, turning a character that could have easily become secondary role into a stand-out.
The best performance, however, is by MacLeod. He depicts Simon as an aloof western official who slowly gains a realization of the consequences of his ethnocentrism. In every scene he inches down this trajectory until by the end his character has become almost unrecognizable. This transition is not easy to express and MacLeod goes above and beyond the demands of the script. It requires a thoughtful approach to the character and some serious risk taking.
The direction of Schoenberg was just as inspired. It is not easy to play to an audience on three sides, and still have the actors engage with everyone. But with some inventive uses of the balconies above the seats and attention to detail in staging, the Loeb Ex became an intimate environment without privileging one section over the other. Additionally, the choice to creatively juxtapose some of the audience’s seating alongside merchants working on stage served to blend audience and actors.
The set design by Madelynne A. Hays ’13 complemented the already thoughtful production. The base of the set consisted of a colonial style house and a dirt floor. For the scenes in the Yoruba marketplace, a tent was set up to obscuring the house. This was a very clever way of representing the divide between the local community and the British colonial administration. The market place shows a bustling and energy-filled Yoruba community while scenes featuring the British colonists highlighted their emphasis on individualism with a sparse stage and little movement.
The use of traditional African drumming and dance also added to the production. Drummers remained on stage for large part of the performance. Repetitive drum tracks accompany entire scenes and helps build the tension that is finally released at the play’s shattering conclusion. The rhythm surrounds the colonists and emphasizes the fact that they exist in an enclave surrounded by a larger, indigenous culture.
This production of “Death and the King’s Horseman” took a difficult script full of complex and at times uncomfortable issues and presented them in a way that was not only accessible, but also thoroughly enjoyable. Every detail of the production was treated with thought and care, bolstered by a remarkable cast of actors that fully embraced the subtleties of their roles. Schoenberg has succeeded in taking a play that is rarely performed outside of Africa and giving it a fresh, relevant look.