‘Horseman’ at UNCG has authentic African flair

by Amy Kingsley

The cast of ‘“Death and the King’s Horseman’” listens as choreographer Robin Gee coaches them through a dance number somewhere in the middle of Act I. Behind them, fabric stitched into totems hangs on a bowed clothesline. Above, chandeliers hang incongruously.

‘“Just so you know, those chandeliers won’t be there when the play opens,’” the stage manager Emily Satterfield says. ‘“They just haven’t hung them at the right spot yet. I just wanted to let you know so you wouldn’t think we were doing some kind of conceptual design.’”

Onstage the players wear costumes inspired by traditional Yoruba dress, colorful and billowy. One of the principals delivers lines scripted in the proverbial tradition.

‘“There is only one home to the life of a river-mussel; there is only one home to the life of a tortoise; there is only one shell to the soul of a man: there is only one world to the spirit of our race. If that world leaves its course and smashes on boulders of the great void, whose world will give us shelter?’”

The character delivers the line as a hypothetical. But it refers obliquely to the British occupation, which in the 1946 setting of the play, hangs over the characters’ heads like those crystal-decked lighting fixtures.

During the next several acts, playwright Wole Soyinka will dissect the incongruities between English and African culture, and the tragedy that results when colonizers impose their cultural norms. The play focuses on a rich culture veering perilously close to those boulders.

In particular, the script focuses on the plight of Elesin Oba, horseman to a king who has recently died. Tribal tradition dictates that Oba, played by local favorite Logie Meachum, should kill himself to fulfill his duty to the monarch, but a pitying colonial district officer intercedes to prevent the act. What follows is a darkening series of cultural misunderstanding along the same literary vein as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Soyinka earned the Nobel Prize in 1986, and the prize committee specifically cited ‘“Death and the King’s Horseman’” as an example of his flair for drama. Despite the critical recognition, Soyinka’s plays have not been performed widely in the United States.

For director Alan Cook, the production fulfills a long held professional desire to bring this work to a UNCG stage and the culmination of 15 years at the helm of the university’s stage direction program. His vision relies heavily on firsthand experience of Nigeria he gained throughout four years in the country on a Fulbright teaching fellowship. It is also the last play he will direct for a program he has led since 1991.

‘“I wouldn’t dare touch something like this without African experience,’” Cook says.

Dressed casually but professorial in khakis and a red polo, Cook is sitting for a few minutes after stretching the rehearsal to its allowable limit. Gee runs through a couple of the African dances while Satterfield fumes.

Cook took two sojourns to Africa, one in 1975 and another in 1982. During those trips he met Soyinka on three occasions.

‘“I love this play and I’ve always wanted to do it,’” Cook says. ‘“This year I finally felt like I could get the cast together to do it.’”

Two of his cast members, both students at UNCG, also have experience with Nigeria. One of them lived in the country until he was 10 years old and the other, a woman who plays the mother of the market, has parents who hail from the West African nation.

‘“Audiences will get the spirit of Yoruba land,’” Cook says, ‘“of the great poetry in the language. There are more than 40,000 proverbs in Yoruba land in daily usage. It is so close to the oral tradition, to a time before there was written language.’”

The play does not focus solely on the tribesman’s plight. Half of the acts follow British characters ‘— hence the chandeliers.

Technicians and actors have a week to smooth out the rough edges, whether those are setting set pieces to the right spike or blending all the elements of the script. With action that leans heavily on dance, percussion and occasionally dense wordplay, finesse is no small matter.

Gee is joining Cook from her regular post in the department of dance, where she specializes in African and modern dance.

She and Cook are directing in tandem tonight. Each reinforces and picks up threads raised by the other.

Percussionist Atiba Rorie, so far to stage right as to be practically offstage, alternates between congas and a djimbe. He adjusts dynamics and tempo for the dancers.

After the 9 p.m., the cast regroups for the top of the show. Dancers head backstage for the props that turn an unfinished stage into an African marketplace: papier-mache vegetables, baskets and hand drums. Under the flood lights, they work seamlessly through the opening scene, tweaking drum volumes and dance rhythms.

Even without the finishing touches, Cook can see his vision, more than 30 years in the making, taking shape.

‘“I feel pretty good about the feeling,’” he says to Logie. ‘“Its really close, really close.’”

The he backs away from the lip of the stage, crosses his arms and watches.

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