Death and the King’s Horseman at Soulpepper plus our interview with playwright Wole Soyinka

Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto continues with its highly successful streaming series of audio plays, Around the World in 80 Plays, with this seldom seen classic, Death and the King’s Horseman which premieres tomorrow. I interviewed Soyinka for the Globe and Mail in 2001 when he attended a conference at the University of Toronto that examined his life and work sponsored by the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama. The interview follows here.

The Soulpepper production is directed by Tawiah Ben M’Carthy and features Maev Beaty, Déjah Dixon-Green, Ijeoma Emesowum, Peter Fernandes, Patrick McManus, Pulga Muchochoma, Wole Oguntokun (who also acted as dramaturg), Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Amaka Umeh, and Micah Woods.

An interview with Soulpepper artistic director Weyni Mengesha and Tawiah Ben M’Carthy can be found here.


By Robin Breon  Special to the Globe and Mail (published November 3, 2001)                                                                                                                                                                                                              

The first scene of Wole Soyinka’s 1971 satirical play, Madmen and Specialists, opens with a group of beggars gambling over body parts.

“What did you bet?” asks one.

“The stump of my left arm,” his friend answers.

“Your last?”

“No. I’ve got one left.”

This sardonic sense of humour and cunning use of metaphor is one of the hallmarks of Soyinka, the charismatic Nigerian dramatist, poet, novelist, director and critic who, in 1986, became the first African to win the Nobel Prize for literature, with particular recognition for his plays. The prize placed the Nigerian among the select company of Rabindranath Tagore, George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre (who declined the prize in 1964) and, more recently, the 1997 winner Dario Fo. The award to Soyinka also began something of a trend away from the Nobel’s almost suffocatingly Eurocentric focus.

Soyinka (pronounced Shoy-inka) was in Toronto last week to see a production of Madmen and Specialists, in fact the play’s Canadian premiere, directed by Tony Adah  and presented at the University of Toronto’s Hart House Theatre as part of a larger conference honouring the writer.

“The genesis of the project” — titled Pre, Post & Neo-Colonialisms: Wole Soyinka and Contemporary Theatre — “started when I first began my graduate studies and Soyinka’s name appeared on the syllabus in one of my courses,” said Adah, who is also Nigerian and a PhD candidate at the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama at U of T. 

“For some reason . . . we never got around to this seminal African writer. This conference is an attempt to rectify that.”

The conference attracted participants from across Canada, the United States, Britain, Europe and Africa at a time when postcolonialist studies are a hot field and practitioners and theorists such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha are much in demand.

Currently teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, where is he is an arts professor in the African-American Studies department, Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka has, it turns out, a long-standing relationship to Canada. In 1992, he received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Toronto. Last year, he got an honorary degree from the University of Alberta in Edmonton and he has been a frequent visitor to Toronto’s International Festival of Authors over the years. More recently, he collaborated with Don Rubin on the African volume of the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, a project that originated at Toronto’s York University and was published in 1997.

“He wrote an eloquent foreword to the book and, as an adviser, assisted us in ways too numerous to mention. He is really one of the six or seven playwrights in the world who can be examined so rigorously because his work is so representative of the political and cultural life of Africa,” Rubin said.

Indeed, a just-published book of essays, Perspectives on Wole Soyinka – Freedom and Complexity, calls him the “leading writer-activist of Africa and the English-speaking world.”

Right now, Soyinka, 67, a tall, thin man with broad shoulders and a heavy shock of grey hair, is at work on a play titled, King Baabu, a reworking of French author Alfred Jarry’s 1896 satirical absurdist classic Ubu Roi.

“The title actually means King Nothing and is the story of a monarch who is capable of exactly that. I was looking for a vehicle to work from and the Jarry play seemed appropriate. It’s an attempt to expose the brutal core of a dictatorship, wherever it may be found,” he said.

Soyinka’s latest project is a classic of the postcolonialist method (that he helped invent), which has a penchant for rewriting and subverting so-called “canonical texts” (such as those of Shakespeare and the Greeks) while playing with themes critical of the colonizer. At the same time, as befits a writer educated in both Nigeria and England, Soyinka’s plays fuse Western dramatic techniques with African folklore, narratives and religion to attack all sorts of corruption and abuses of power, be they the result of imperialism or local tyranny.

However, as U.S. writer Henry Louis Gates has noted, it’s been Soyinka’s special genius to “avoid confusing art and politics.” While Soyinka is “a profoundly political writer,” he’s a subtle one, according to Gates. “Perhaps it is fair to say that his most admirable characteristic as a writer and activist is the compelling manner in which his art and his political acts have always assumed their unique form — separate but somehow equal.”

Soyinka speaks in an assured, resonant baritone with a careful enunciation unmistakably pointing to a man of the theatre. Indeed, during the Toronto conference, the playwright performed some of the roles in his work-in-progress, especially delighting the crowd of 200 with his portrayal of the fiercely autocratic King Baabu.

Asked how he approaches the creative process of playwrighting, Soyinka admitted that he much prefers the act of making the play to the final product. “I obviously enjoy the writing part and I’ve always loved the ability to work with actors as a director in the rehearsal process. That, to me, is still the essence of the art form and really the most enjoyable part.”

Soyinka conceded that political persecution — he spent 27 months in jail, 10 of them in solitary confinement, in the late sixties for allegedly conspiring to support the secession of Biafra from Nigeria — then subsequent exile, starting in 1994, from his homeland – might have been formidable obstacles to the dissemination of his work had it not been for the “universal themes” found in his plays.

“For example, when I had to flee the Nigerian military dictatorship, I was fortunate that a woman named Sheila Graham, who ran a theatre company in Jamaica, had read one of my plays and said: ‘Oh my god, this is Kingston, Jamaica,’ and she got in touch with me and I went and directed the play there. In so doing, we found an ambience in which the play could grow even further.”

Soyinka scored his first big successes in 1962 and 1965 with A Dance of the Forests and The Road, respectively. A critic of the time lauded him for taking “our napping English language [and] booting it awake, rifling its pockets and scattering the loot into the middle of next week.”

Since moving to the U.S., Soyinka has had the opportunity to reflect on living and working in an affluent society that has figured grandly in the whole postcolonial period. “The U.S. is one of the most insular societies that I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. It’s not just a question of them not knowing — but more not knowing that they don’t know,” he said.

“I see even among liberal thinkers in the U.S. the tendency to respond to the current crisis as ‘noble Americans’ rather than to respond on behalf of humanity, because it was humanity that was assaulted on Sept. 11. And it’s a continuation of the assault that took place in Kenya and in Tanzania when [al-Qaeda supporters]bombed the [U.S.]embassy and killed Muslim Africans. Innocent, guilty — it doesn’t matter to them. In other words, you are talking about people who also want to play God.”

Soyinka went on to say that he believes people must confront the problems of terror and clashes between religious and ethnic groups holistically: “The Financial Times estimated that over 20,000 people have died in Nigeria since [fighting between Moslems and Christians began there earlier] this fall. Everything is intertwined, you see, but jingoism is not the answer. America fights back, America hates back — that is as nauseating as the failure to realize that it is humanity that is also being assaulted by certain forces. Jingoism cannot replace that.”

(With editorial assistance from James Adams/ rb)

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