Honor is a much-used and dangerous word in Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman. Elesin, the king's horseman, is steeped in honor. The market women sing the refrain, "We know you for a man of honor," to Elesin to soothe him and to please him. "Life is honor," Elesin reminds his wives. But say a word enough times and it starts to sound strange or lose its meaning altogether. Honor requires a duty — and so today, Elesin must die so that he may serve his chief in the afterlife. His death is a ritual that will keep the universe running smoothly, according to Yoruba cosmology. But it's 1944, and Yorubaland is in the midst of a precarious colonization by the British. When the local authority, Simon Pilkings, gets wind of Elesin's planned suicide, he attempts to stop it because the crown prince of England is touring the country and Pilkings wishes to forestall any unpleasantness among the native people. Efficiently discharging his duty to the distant king is a point of honor for Pilkings, and honor must be maintained at all costs.
Director Segun Ojewuyi beautifully illustrates Soyinka's tale of clashing cultures in a three-hour spectacle that reveals something of the depth and majesty of the Yoruba culture. Bobbie Bonebrake's set's greatest feature is a massive, suspended dual tribal mask that looms over one side of the stage. These are the ancestors watching over their children — an omnipresent reminder that the past is very present in Yoruba culture. When the scene changes to the British compound, a too-small Union Jack partially obscures the masks, a subtle visual reminder that the "alien" culture the British wish to supplant is in fact only temporarily blinkered. Costume designer Kathryn Wagner enhances the richness of the story with yards of luxurious fabric on each player. When the cast breaks into song and dance, the stage seems to undulate and ripple as a field of flowers in a strong wind. It's a gorgeous display, enhanced by a trio of traditional drummers who propel the action (and occasionally overpower some of the dialogue). All this beauty, coupled with the powerful, poetic imagery of Soyinka's language, shows Yoruba culture as advanced, courtly, nuanced — so far from savage that the idiocy of the British becomes staggering.
The performances are sublime. Ron Himes plays Elesin as a lord of the Earth in the first half, a man who enjoys his great power and respect with a playful, even devilish, glee. When he succeeds in claiming one last wife on his last day, Elesin grins at the audience and performs a saucy victory dance. His great love of life's sensations is his weakness, as Himes reveals most powerfully, and piteously, in the fifth act. As Pilkings John Flack brings a self-centered and abrasive tone that provides an excellent contrast to Elesin's flowing speech. Linda Kennedy creates Iyaoja, Elesin's senior wife, mostly through a dancer's language of gesture, head-tilt and eye-cast through four acts, then dominates the final scenes with hissing condemnation. And special praise is reserved for the chorus of market women, who sing, dance and speak in unison, creating the image of a world unified and harmonious in beauty.
It's a world worth saving, and visiting — even if only for three hours.