Wole Soyinka's play, "Death and the King's Horseman," ran into what he calls "an incredible series of accidents" during rehearsals for its American premiere. Being a Nigerian still in touch with his tribal traditions, he had a solution for the problem.
"I decided," he says matter-of-factly, "that before we go on, I must sacrifice a goat."
As it happened, no goats were available for sacrifice in Chicago, where the play is now running at The Goodman Theatre, but Soyinka says he found "a good, big cockerel, I invited everyone in the show to attend the ritual, expecting only one or two to come, but almost all of them trooped down -- white members of the cast as well as black -- and they all participated. Afterwards, we had a quiet discussion of what it meant."
Evidently, the sacrifice helped. "Death and the King's Horseman" was warmly received in Chicago, by audiences, critics and the media -- all of whom were intrigued by the play's curious mixture of tragedy, the folk-lore of the Yoruba tribe, and a bit of British-style drawing-room comedy. The Kennedy Center is now actively considering the production for Washington after its run in Chicago.
One of Soyinka's admirers has called him "the African Shakespeare," but Greek tragedy would be a slightly more accurate comparison; and ultimately Soyinka's work is unlike anything else in contemporary theater. Keenly aware of the modern world but also deeply rooted in timeless African culture, it uses poetic symbolism, music and dance as much as dialogue and dramatic action to make its effects.
Soyinka, 45, was in Washington last weekend for a talk at the Museum of African Art -- part of a tour of American cities. He came under the auspices of the African-American Institute, which is using a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to bring African artists to the United States.
He is a graduate of a British university (Leeds) and a professor of dramatic literature at a Nigerian university (Ife), a poet and playwright of international stature and one of Africa's leading writers in the English language. The merest hint will launch him on a lengthy and intricate discussion of the difference between African and Western philosophy, and sitting with him in an American cocktail lounge for a quiet conversation, one recognizes him immediately as a citizen of the world -- at home in any civilized milieu.
"There are two things I will not touch: popcorn and Coca-Cola," he tells a waitress who is taking his order. "That would be absolute submission to American institutions. But I do submit to bourbon -- only one rock, please."
Bourbon is the name of a street in New Orleans, where Soyinka has just delivered two lectures and been made an honorary citizen, and the drink evokes memories of the city:
"I am now a fellow-citizen with Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton, and I consider it a great honor," he says. "I like not only all the traditional jazz and Dixieland artists, but such modernists as Cecil Taylor. Part of the interest lies in seeing how African resources are reshaped on this continent."
What is this exquisitely civilized man doing engaging in animal sacrifice? He explains that he relates to tribal traditions "in the emotional things," and suggests that everyone does, in one way or another: "The universal realities and the immutable human experiences -- death, life, birth and procreation, for example -- in all cultures are governed by irrationality. Africans differ from Westerners not in the fact that they are sometimes irrational but in their ways of being irrational."
He used to talk about the mass deaths at Jonestown as a sign that collective irrationality "is not so remote" in modern Western society, but another example thrust itself upon him while his play was being rehearsed in Chicago. "On the night of the first preview performance," he explains, "we had a conflict: Pope John Paul II was scheduled to say his mass right across the street from the theater. The management wisely decided to postpone the opening -- competition was too stiff.
"Watching this man, and observing the expressions on the faces of those in the audience, it occurred to me that these people were celebrating the representative of a man who willed and cultivated his own death on behalf of humanity. I thought of the way this man's religion has been cultivated and elaborated, the innumerable variations that have arisen, the fights among various sects in this religion of love and millions of people who have died because of small differences in doctrine. I am not objecting to irrationality; I only think we should recognize it for what it is."
"Death and the King's Horseman" is a story of irrationality in two cultures. On one side, there is the ritual suicide of a high-ranking officer of the Yoruba king, who must die during his master's funeral to assist him in the next world. On the other, are the ideas of honor, duty, status and the proper way of doing things, held by a British colonial officer who tries to impose his values on the Yoruba.
Soyinka grew up in both worlds -- his father was a schoolteacher, his mother a merchant -- but he also spent much of his childhood living in a village with his grandfather. "You could say that I was a village boy," he reflects. "When I left Nigeria to be educated in England, I took it as an adventure -- I was fascinated, repelled and indifferent in turn. There are many things about Europe that make me happy to be able to say I am not a European -- but I accept tribal identity only in cultural terms; tribalism as a political force is something I cannot understand."
When he began slowly coming to the conclusion that he wanted to be a poet and playwright, his multiple identity gave his work an added thematic richness. But there are also problems in finding or training actors who can live comfortably in both of Soyinka's worlds. He has founded several acting companies in Nigeria, and he went to Chicago to direct his play -- knowing from experience that otherwise it would not be done as he wanted it.
"American actors, white and black, are used to certain schools and styles of acting," Soyinka explains, "and the style required for my play is not like any of them. To perform it properly, they must create a completely different environment -- and the fact that these actors are black does not make it easier for them; they are still Americans, their bodies move in certain ways and their mouths form sounds in certain ways which are not African. One actress had to drop out of the production after three weeks of rehearsal, partly because she could not relate to the theme of the play but also because she could not make her body move in an African way.
"This is not easy, even for some Africans. The first acting company I founded had similar problems; the players were middle-class, British-educated Africans, accustomed to Shaw and Shakespeare in their repertoire, and they had to work hard to learn African ways of movement."
Still it is easier now than it would have been in the early '60s, he said. "The difference between then and now in African awareness in the United States is phenomenal; 15 or 20 years ago, African identity in this country was a reference point for self-assertion, but now it has gone far beyond that. There is a real desire to reshape the entire personality in terms of the African world. There has been a lot of misunderstanding, and some of the things done have been ridiculous, but much of it is being done very intelligently and with significant results."
gHis own relatin to tribal traditions is somewhat ambiguous. "They are a living part of me," he says, "but only partially. I do not accept, for example, the idea of ritual suicide in any culture, including my own -- but I want to be able to explore that idea in its own context, on its own terms. What makes it easy for a man to accept such a suicide -- not as an individual act but as something which is linked to the well-being of the entire community?
"Part of my function as a thinking being is to be curious."
Another part, apparently, is to be political -- and this function got him two years in prison (mostly spent in solitary confinement) from 1967 to 1969, when the Nigerian government accused him of supporting the cause of the Biafran rebels. He did, in fac t "disagree actively with the war policy toward the Biafrans -- particularly the disgusting fabrications which the government wove around its actions," he says.
He still opposes the people (he calls them "the Nigerian Mafia") who instigated that war and who are still in power in Nigeria, he says. "During the last election, I felt it was essential to warn the populace, no matter whom they voted for, not to vote for one party -- the crooks and murdering thieves who are now in power.
"Anything can happen, of course, but I don't expect to go back to jail -- we have advanced in the last 10 years.