Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, an epic work by a Nobel laureate, will receive what's promised as a rare and epic production at Syracuse Stage, beginning previews Feb. 17.
The revival of the 1975 play, about the political, personal, social and tribal aftermath of the death of a Nigerian king, officially opens Feb. 19 as the season's centerpiece staging at the Syracuse, NY, resident theatre. For a city the size of Syracuse, the production has taken on the feel of a genuine "event" -- including a March 3-4 visit and address by Soyinka himself, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
Performances continue to March 13.
Among aspects of the staging:
* This is the 26-year-old Syracuse Stage's first work by living Nobel winner. * Syracuse Stage won its largest single-production National Endowment for the Arts grant for Death ($37,600).
* The last major production of the play was in 1987 at Lincoln Center in New York City.
* The multicultural, international cast of 30 is the largest of the season and includes Actors' Equity performers, dancers, instrumentalists and students from Syracuse University and LeMoyne College.
* Soyinka will attend the show March 3 and give a lecture called "Revisionism and the Heirs of Martin Luther King Jr." 7 PM March 4. The address, at the Goldstein Auditorium, is free with reservations. Call (315) 443-4517. His visit is sponsored by Syracuse University's Department of African American Studies and Soyinka friend and colleague Micere Githae Mugo, an SU professor.
The allegory begins before the play starts: A king in the Yoruba tribe has died, and tradition dictates that his horseman, Elesin, commit suicide. But a British colonial official intervenes in the name of "civilization," jailing the horseman and underlining the tension between Western standards and African traditions.
Syracuse production notes call the staging "a celebration of Nigerian culture and a feast for the senses...a panorama of people, costume, music, song, drumming, poetry, dance, satire, rhetoric and pathos."
Marion McClinton (a director and playwright who has worked in such regional theatres as Baltimore's Center Stage) directs a cast that includes Equity's Roger Robinson as Elesin, Bisi Adeleke, Spence Scott Barros, Renee Monique Brown, Elizabeth Flax, Leland Gantt, Malcolm Ingram, Craig MacDonald, Mary O'Brady, Sina Odukoya, Segun A. Ojewuyl, Tonye Patano, Beverley Prentice and Kurt Rhoads.
Students, dancers and musicians round out the pageant, choreographed by Dianne McIntrye ("Beloved"). Music is by Kysia Bostic, set is by Karen TenEyck, costumes are by Michael Stein, lighting is by Pat Dignon, sound is by Jonathan Herter. Assistant director is Segun A. Ojewuyl, who directed the play in Nigeria in 1994 at the National Theatre in Lagos. His creative work in Nigeria threatened the authorities, making him an exile.
"It's a poetic drama of tragic Greek dimensions -- or Shakespearean dimensions," Syracuse literary manager Garrett Eisler told Playbill On Line Feb. 16.
He said the play is both "personal and political," with horseman Elesin not only facing the will of the English, but feeling that he himself is not ready to die, raising the ill will of his own community. "It's a test of courage," Eisler said.
Syracuse Stage artistic director Robert Moss said he was swept away by the Lincoln Center production and "I have always wanted to produce it."
"It's a play about traditions, duty and fathers and sons," said Moss. "I see it as a European American -- as a play about cultures and people not understanding the other and not reaching out to understand each other. He has inspired everybody."
The reason the play is not often done, he said, is because "it's huge."
Moss told Playbill On-Line that at the top of his list to direct Death was African-American director Marion McClinton. He called McClinton at home and told him he was scheduling the Soyinka play.
"I was sure he would say he couldn't direct it, and he said, 'Are you crazy?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Then I'm coming.' "
Novelist-poet-essayist-playwright Soyinka may be Africa's best-known writer and is certainly a major cultural export of the politically turbulent Nigeria, where colonialism, dictatorship and governments in flux have scarred the social landscape. Soyinka has directed and performed in theatres and more makeshift spaces in Africa -- marketplaces, villages, streets. His work includes The Swamp Dwellers, The Lion and the Jewel, Kongi's Harvest, Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed.
After studying in London, where his The Invention was produced by the Royal Court in 1959, Soyinka returned to Ibadan, Nigeria in 1960. In 1967, he was arrested for supporting Biafra and held as a political prisoner for two years. On his release, he became director of the Drama School at the University of Ibadan. He lives in exile, although he has visited Nigeria.
Soyinka, whose real name is Arkinwande Oluwole, was last represented in New York City by The Beatification Of Area Boy (about people living under a dictatorship) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1996. It was originally staged at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, England.
Syracuse Stage is at 820 E. Gennesee St. Tickets are $16-$37. Call (315) 443-3275.
-- By Kenneth Jones