Death and the King's Horsemen

Soulpepper's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 PLAYS series

Soulpepper website

Joe Szekeres

Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre concludes its ‘Around the World in 80 Plays’ audio play series with its final destination, Nigeria, and Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’, thoughtfully and compassionately directed by Tawiah Ben M’Carthy.

It’s an important play, and I’ll clarify even more in saying it’s a challenging one on many levels, as so much is said in the dialogue that the listener MUST pay careful and close attention, otherwise it is easy to get lost and confused in the unfolding story of colonial politics and values which end up destroying all that is of worth and great value to many.

I encourage future listeners to take a few minutes before the production begins to hear ‘The Sit Down’ where Soulpepper Artistic Director, Weyni Mengesha, speaks with Director Tawiah Ben M’Carthy. For me, I found the context of the production was clearly established with these two influential voices and what they have to say regarding the play’s creative vision and the importance of cultural representation in the Canadian theatre community as we all move forward out of this worldwide pandemic.

A bit of personal online research also helped to establish context for me. Playwright Soyinka was born in western Nigeria. His parents who were from different Yoruba speaking ethnic groups were Christians, but other relatives observed African beliefs and deities. Nigeria at this time was a British colony so Soyinka grew up with exposure to both Yoruban and western culture.

In ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’, this culture clash is even more profound today.

We meet Elesin (Wole Oguntokun), Yoruban King Alafin’s horseman, who wanders through the market on his last day of life since, by tradition, he is required to accompany the King who has gone to the afterlife. This sacred ritual of the people becomes interrupted through clashes with colonialist voice and thought with tragic results.

Soyinka’s script is not written in the traditional format in the way many of us know what a script to be. At times, the dialogue is rather poetic in nature while at other moments the use of free verse allows the characters to voice their sometimes-personal feelings, especially in Part One, where the women who have just finished their work in the market and are closing their stalls for the day. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah (as Iyaloja), Ijeoma Emesowum and Dejah Dixon-Green delightfully and playfully tease and taunt Elesin (a vocally confident Wole Oguntokun) about his sexual prowess in his quest to marry the beautiful woman whom he just sees before he enters the afterlife with his King.

This opening to the audio drama took me a few minutes to get used to this format of rhythmic free verse, but once my ear grew accustomed it was interesting to close my eyes and listen to the vocal work of the artists.

The proudly strong Yoruban cultural representation often clashes harshly with the world of District Officer Simon Pilkings (Patrick McManus) and his wife, Jane (Maev Beaty). The Pilkings are wearing clothing (traditionally worn for a sacred egungun ceremony) with which they hope to win the prize for the best costume at a ball the British District is holding this night. For me, it is at this point where the story became intriguing as this upper-class couple sees nothing wrong with using sacred clothing merely as a prop to win a prize and to make them look good in front of others. (Reminds me of that huge ‘discussion’ several years ago when the Trudeau family wore clothing that many did not consider appropriate) Both McManus and Beaty distinctly capture that aloofness in their scoffing of native belief in their deportment with Amusa (a strongly vocal Pulga Muchochoma).

Yes, tragedy heightens by the end, but this important audio drama makes we listeners aware there is more that needs to be done to ensure there is a fairness and equity in dealing with cultural representation both equally and justly, and most notably in what happens to Olunde (Peter Fernandes), Elesin’s son.

Final Comments: This round the world trip with Soulpepper most certainly allowed me to seek out new stories from other artists which, according to Soulpepper AD Weyni Mengesha, defined their communities and their societies. ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ is another part of the Canadian theatre canon which needs to be seen for an even greater impact in front of a live audience.

Let’s hope that can be sometime soon.

Soulpepper Theatre, in partnership with The Stratford Festival, presents ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ as part of the ‘Around the World in 80 Plays’ series until June 30, 2021. For tickets and other information, visit www.soulpepper.ca.

Cast: Meav Beaty, Dejah Dixon-Green, Ijeoma Emesowum, Peter Fernandes, Pulga Muchochoma, Patrick McManus, Wole Oguntokun, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Amaka Umeh, Micah Woods

Directed by Tawiah Ben M’Carthy.

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