As the title suggests, Death and the King’s Horseman is not your fluffy, pre-holiday theatrical fare. Middlebury College playwright-in-residence Dana Yeaton has timed this Sunday’s staged reading of Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s taut drama to coincide with a dazzling display of African artifacts at the school’s art museum, entitled “Resonance from the Past: African Art from the New Orleans Museum of Art.” Although Soyinka addresses weighty themes of honor, duty and sacrifice, he also infuses poetry and humor into the life-and-death struggles his characters face.
When a call went out for projects to support the exhibit, Yeaton immediately thought of the Nobel Laureate’s 1975 play. Many pieces in the show come from the Yoruban region of Nigeria, where Soyinka was born and where he set the story. In a “nice little coincidence,” says Yeaton, a specific ceremonial object that plays a pivotal role in the script — an Egungun death mask — happens to be part of the display. The mask is a metaphor for misunderstanding between the Nigerians and the British colonial officials who live among them. In the play, a District Officer’s wife wears the sacred item, which is invested with deep ritual significance, to a costume party.
Set during World War II, the play is based on a true story. A Yoruban king has died, and tradition dictates that his closest advisor — his horseman, called Elesin — must follow him to the hereafter 30 days later.
Elesin embraces his destiny because his relationship to the king formed the cornerstone of his dignity and renown. “Our joint hands raised houseposts of trust that withstood the siege of envy and the termites of time,” he says. Elesin looks forward to rejoining his friend, when “our spirits shall fall in step along the great passage.”
As Elesin and his Praise-Singer stroll through the market on his last day, townspeople celebrate the horseman and his impending transition. But when word leaks to the British administrators, they set out to derail Elesin’s plans, condemning the imminent suicide as “pagan.”
In the play’s intro, Soyinka himself cautions against seeing the story as a “clash of cultures,” because this “presupposes a potential equality . . . of the alien culture and the indigenous.” This warning altered Yeaton’s perspective. In the first two scenes, there is “no way to avoid the contrast,” Yeaton admits. Soyinka depicts the Yorubans with a “wonderful rich culture, full of agrarian imagery and . . . charismatic people making epic sacrifices for each other. And then you meet these silly, Monty Pythonesque caricatures of English people . . . They couldn’t be much more superficial.”
But Soyinka, who was educated in England during the empire’s waning days, goes beyond a simplistic narrative in which bad white colonial masters make victims of their good black colonial subjects. The “eye-opener,” says Yeaton, is the final scene. “As much as the white culture gets mocked and mocks itself in this story . . . , [Soyinka] allows for the possibility that this awful intervention, with all its awful consequences, is something that was inspired by the best of intentions.”
A staged reading — in which actors perform with scripts and without sets, costumes or elaborately directed physical movement — offers several benefits over a full-fledged production, according to Yeaton. The playwright believes the “winning recipe” for pulling “wonderful performances” out of his actors is to mix a few seasoned pros with “excited” students, both experienced and inexperienced. Coming in from New York City to play Elesin is actor Esau Pritchett, “an annual star on campus,” Yeaton notes, from his dramatic readings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s letters at MLK Day concerts. Middlebury artist-in-residence François Clemmons — a noted gospel vocalist — portrays the Praise-Singer.
From a practical point of view, the greatly reduced rehearsal time makes the reading “a low-investment, high-yield affair,” says Yeaton. Seeing a script come to life from the table-read step has always been “one of the most exciting times for me in rehearsal process,” he observes. “When people are expected to come in off-book, at that point, whatever you’ve achieved, half of it gets lost as people fumble for words.”
Yeaton feels the comfort of a script in hand creates a “shield.” Neophytes “dare to take chances” and vets give “amazing performances.” The results? Stage alchemy, perhaps. “I think a kind of magic occurs,” Yeaton professes. “When it’s all done, it’s common to hear people say, ‘I forgot it was a reading. I thought I was watching the play.’”
Death and the King's Horseman, by Wole Soyinka, directed by Dana Yeaton. Middlebury College Center for the Arts Dance Studio, Middlebury. Sunday, December 2, at 2 p.m. Free.