Bolanle Austen-Peters is a strong advocate of the African storytelling as an important export to the outside world. She believes no other person can tell the African story better than the way Africans can tell it with authenticity. She also believes telling the African story is an avenue of solving one of Africa’s biggest and intractable problems: joblessness. That’s why her theatre is big, as it employs an array of performers, musicians, dancers, actors and crew that help her realise her theatric ambition of giving the best to lovers of theatre.
And so from Broadway Musical Theatre that saw Mrs Austen-Peters producing Saro, Waka, Fela and Moremi, she recently turned attention to yet another historical drama that is challenging by virtue of it being rendered in typical Soyinkan poetic idiom. It was Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, a play set in Oyo based on actual historical facts. Daunting as it is, Austen-Peters and her cast and crew created a piece of dramatic wonder that animated the stage for the audience that applauded scene after scene. Austen-Peters’ interpretation made easy what many theatre pundits regard as Soyinka’s dense poetic language even on stage. It should also be pointed out that Soyinka’s use of Yoruba folk elements like songs, proverbs and imageries somewhat made light what appears heavy poetic rendering.
Moreover, the trio of Iyaloja (as Mawuyo Ogun), Eleshin Oba (as OLarotimi Fakunle) and Olohun Iyo (as Lanre Adediwura) gave such interpretation that made the performance such a delight while it ran for four days during the holiday last weekend.
At the heart of Death and the King’s Horseman is one of Africa’s ancient traditions regarded in modern sensibilities, as barbaric, when upon a king’s death, a certain official would also die and act as his guide in the afterlife. The late oba is insistent that his horseman hurries over so he could guide him around as his duty demands. But Eleshin Oba is not a man in a hurry. Though a short time is all he has, he sets about making the most of it. Where else is best the melting point in an African setting for him to enact the last act of his passage to join the personage that awaits him on the other side of life? The market place with its array of sumptuousness: wares of various hues and, of course, women.
A man of obvious influence and of epicurean nature, Eleshin Oba reminds his marketplace audience that he’s had the very best that life can offer alongside the late oba, as a way of saying that he would not regret doing his duty to his late king. But he does not stop there; he contrives yet again to have his last fill of life before he departs. First, he accuses Iyaloja and the market people of treating him shabbily by not giving him a change of clothing since he arrived the market. Then he sets his eyes on a young belle and makes up his mind to have her as his last act of earthly dealing, so he can also leave a piece of himself behind as he journeys home to meet his king. Everyone is aghast at his request, but Iyaloja indulges him in spite protestations, but also warns him of the dangers of excessive indulgence to which Eleshi Oba brushes aside, intent as he is on fulfilling his desire of emptying his loins before taking leave of the world.
But like Ezeulu and the people of Umuaro in Chinua Achebe’s Arrows of God, Eleshin Oba and Oyo people do not reckon with the external factor of colonialism already knocking and shaping ways of life differently from the way the people have known it: the presence of the white man and how he is imposing his alien ways of life on the local people to their detriment! Eleshin Oba though bound by duty to commit ritual suicide and join the late oba, he is short on conviction towards this traditional duty. And so at the final hour of departure, his body and his spirit are locked in a fierce struggle of supremacy. It’s at the height of this historic struggle that the white man’s law catches up with Eleshin Oba; they arrest him for attempting suicide. The white man, Mr. Pilkins locks him up, apparently to save him from himself!
Eleshin 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 Eleshin 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. Eleshin 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 Eleshin 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 white 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. Eleshin Oba is brought before his son who had since presumed him dead.
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 Eleshin 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. Eleshin 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, Eleshin 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 Eleshin Oba’s struggle with death are apt scenes and harmonious use of multi-media that enhances the interpretation of the play.
Of course, BAP Productions, as always, had a handful of sponsors, which made the difference as Austen-Peters acknowledged after each performance. Corporate entities as Dorman Long, Amstel Malta, MTN, AfricaMagic, Beat FM, Smooth FM, and PlusTV made the performance a reality, she said.