Classic Nigerian play comes to York


Above, left to right: Kurt Spenrath, Toyin Dada, Donald Carr, Jude Idada and Ian Morfitt, in Death and the King’s Horseman

Modupe Olaogun (right), a York professor of English, is producing, as she puts it, “a classic play by one of the greatest writers of our time”, Death and the King’s Horseman. Several York students are also involved in the production of this energetic play, which is currently showing at Artword Theatre in Toronto, and will be coming next week to York’s Burton Auditorium, which is beside York’s Centre for Film & Theatre.

Billed as one of the most powerful plays of the 20th century, Death and the King’s Horseman by Nobel prizewinning Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka (1975), will run at York for two matinees on Tuesday, May 25, at 10am and 2pm. Admission is $10 for students and $15 for regular. For reservations, call Artword Theatre at 416-408-1146.

. The box office at the Burton Auditorium will be open half an hour before each performance.

Several York students and alumni are involved in the play with Olaogun, including Shadya Yasin, an undergraduate student in the Faculty of Pure & Applied Science, Rebecca Fisseha, BFA ‘02 and currently doing an MA at York, and Kasia Spyra, an undergraduate student in York’s Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies.

AfriCan Theatre Ensemble (ATE) joined forces with Artword to tackle the classic play that is seen as one of Soyinka’s more ambitious works. The two troupes have been closely associated since 1999, when Olaogun, ATE’s artistic director, approached the organizers of the newly renovated Artword Theatre to arrange as a venue for ATE’s first production. Since then, all of the ensemble’s works have been performed there.

Death and the King’s Horseman opened Monday, May 18, at Artword Theatre, and runs to Saturday, May 30, at 75 Portland Street, Toronto. For show times, click here.

The play

Death and the King’s Horseman premiered in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, in 1976. Nearly 30 years later it is being staged for the first time in Toronto. Set in Nigeria in 1945, it is inspired by a true story.

Right: Sistah Lois Jacob (second from left) and Donald Carr (far right), with others members of ATE in the play

A Yoruba King has died, and the great chief Elesin, the king’s horseman, is expected to accompany him to the next world, says a news release from Artword Theatre. The local colonial district officer intervenes to save the chief’s life, not comprehending the calamitous impact this will have. The chief’s son, who has returned from studying medicine in England, tries to head off the catastrophe.

The script switches between a rich, metaphorical prose derived from Yoruba ceremonial language and the clipped, spare style of the English colonialists – all mixed together with poetry and song. The action is punctuated by the evocative voice of the Yoruba talking drum, an instrument with a tonal flexibility that allows it to imitate language.

Despite its dark core, many of the scenes in Death and the King’s Horseman are exuberantly comic. The market scenes, in particular, teem with life, colour, dance and song – elements essential to the Yoruba spiritual world view.

More about the playwright

The plays of Wole Soyinka (left) range from satirical political commentary (Kongi’s Harvest, Madmen and Specialists) to the tragic cadences of Death and the King’s Horseman and The Strong Breed. He draws upon Yoruba myth and ceremonies, incantatory poetry, dance and music to connect the historical with the metaphysical, the timeless realm which unites the living, the dead and the unborn.

Soyinka has published in virtually every genre and his contribution includes critical and theoretical work on theatre, literature and culture. Throughout his career, he has fought against the effects of imperialism on Africa, and against authoritarian politicians and military dictators. In 1986, Wole Soyinka became the first African awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

For more information about ATE, click here. For details about Artword Theatre, click here.