Wole Soyinka, the acclaimed Nigerian playwright, is a bit upset by the prospect of opening nights. So last night when his play "Death and the King's Horseman" opened at Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, he went backstage, talked to his actors, and then ducked out -- to catch the movie Don Giovanni, according to Kennedy Center spokesman Leo Sullivan.

"He didn't come to the opening in Chicago either," said Norman Matlock, who plays the horseman. "I'm getting used to it."

No matter. He was praised in absentia, and so were his actors last night at the reception in the Kennedy Center Atrium after the performance hosted by General Foods, which helped underwrite the cost of the play.

"Well, I had just gotten laryngitis, so I was concentrating on that," said Matlock, whose voice was smooth and robust. He greeted guest after guest who came up to him to tell him how good he was.

"The audience was frustrated because there was no curtain call," said one guest to Matlock. "The audience stood up and started clapping away with no one to clap for."

"Who am I to make a review?" said Nigerian Ambassador Alujimi Jolaoso, throwing up his rams and searching the air for words. "Wole Soyinka -- he's our best. The play speaks for itslf. I'm very proud. We've been wanting him to break into the American scene."

And it was a slightly different crowd that came to this opening -- in addition to the usual array of congressional and social leaders, there were many black professionals and artists. "I thought it was a good play and well presented," said Gordon Braithwaite, special assistant to the chairman of the Arts Endowment. "I want to see a large black audience going to see it."

"Africanists say the origins of opera are in Africa," said artist Jeff Donaldson. "This play reinforces that idea. I've never seen such a smooth flow from dance to music to spoken word. I've got to talk to Wole about this . . ."

And standing only a few feet from Roger Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center, was Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), who had suggested that the Kennedy Center look at the script after Percy saw it produced at Chicago's Goodman Theater. "For 14 years Roger has kept my face buried in balance sheets," said Percy, cochairman of the Kennedy Center Board. "I thought I was on the board because of my knowledge of opera or theater. At last I got my chance."