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Death and the King's Horseman

If "Shake-speare" were an African, his name would be Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian novelist, poet, dramatist, and Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1986. Soyinka's elegant language, classical tragic structure, and poetic sense of tribal rhythms are currently being served to perfection in Death and the King's Horseman, now running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Elesin (Derrick Lee Weeden) and Iyaloja (Perri Gaffney) greet each other at the marketplace.
Elesin (Derrick Lee Weeden)
and Iyaloja (Perri Gaffney)
greet each other at the marketplace.
Photo: Jenny Graham
Most refreshing, though, Soyinka is noble without the nobility, evincing uncompromising anti-colonial politics in this scathing drama based on an actual incident in 1946, during British rule in Nigeria.

The local king has died and, according to custom, his horseman must accompany him on the journey to the next world—the balance of the natural world depends upon it—however, such practices are considered pagan by the occupying English, in particular, the envoy and his wife.

Praise-Singer (G. Valmont Thomas) carries a message for Elesin.
Praise-Singer
(G. Valmont Thomas)
carries a message for Elesin.
Photo: Jenny Graham
Soyinka heightens the clash of cultures with two sub-plots: the return of the king's horseman's son from his studies in London and a visit from a British prince.

Derrick Lee Weeden, as Elesin, horseman of the king, astounds with his heavenly scansion, chillingly resonant timbre, and heart-wrenching performance. Perri Gaffney is haunting as Iyaloja, "mother" of the market, the voice of tradition and Elesin's most vocal tribal critic. G. Valmont Thomas is inspired as the Praise-Singer (griot or storyteller). Strong supporting performances from Rex Young as Simon Pilkings, the District Officer, Emily Sophia Knapp, as his wife, Jan Pilkings, and Ryan Anderson as Olunde, eldest son of Elesin, add further intensity to the dynamics and dramatic arc.

Simon Pilkings (Rex Young) and his wife Jane (Emily Sophia Knapp) dance the tango in preparation for the evening's costume ball.
Simon Pilkings (Rex Young)
and his wife Jane
(Emily Sophia Knapp)
dance the tango in
preparation for the
evening's costume ball.
Photo: Jenny Graham
Enough can't be said about Chuck Smith's insightful direction and the stunning music, choreography, costumes, sets, and lighting.

Though there is seemingly some contrivance in Iyaloja's and Olunde's conflicts with Elesin's difficulties in finding his way to the next world, such perceptions may be attributed in part to the vast cultural divide between causal (scientific) and acausal (spiritual) worldviews.

Death and the King's Horseman deserves serious consideration by any company seeking to expose its audience to the best in world theatre. It runs through July 5th at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre. 541-482-4331 or www.osfashland.org.

Bob Bows

 

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