Unpacking the Themes of Colonialism and Duty in Death and the King’s Horseman

Unpacking the Themes of Colonialism and Duty in Death and the King’s Horseman

By Chiamaka Ozulumba

This past weekend, I visited the famous Terra Kulture to watch the stage adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. The show was produced by Bolanle Austen-Peters, in partnership with the MTN Foundation.

While many elements of the story were retained, there were slight changes in the dialogue, some twists and powerful dance and musical performances that gave the production a refined, yet authentic feel.

Death and the King’s Horseman is set in WWII, in Oyo State so Nigeria is still a British colony. The production sticks to the historical fact, which is, in fact, based on true events that occurred in 1941.

It is the story about Elesin Oba, the King’s horseman, who enjoys all the privileges of a King in return for submission to his fate to commit ritual suicide after the death of the king he serves and follow him to the realm of the dead. This tradition is considered sacred and crucial in honouring the dead king and ensuring the well-being of the community.

The show climaxes when due to Elesin Oba’s hesitation, he is prevented by Mr. Pilkings, a local colonial officer, from committing ritual suicide. Mr Pilkings arrests Elesin Oba for what he considers a crime.

The morality of the custom of mandatory ritual suicide has been questioned severally, as is typical with most cultural practices. Elesin Oba’s role is regarded as crucial by members of the community in ensuring its balance and progress but the British thought completely different, asserting that the practice was “barbaric,” without first attempting to understand it which is characteristic of the colonialists and so-called “explorers”.

It was interesting to see the various characters insist on their perspectives, which are heavily influenced by their socialisation. One of the most influential chiefs, Iyaloja and Olunde, son of Elesin Oba, were persuaded that the commission of ritual suicide was a non-negotiable tradition to be followed, while Mr. Pilkings, his wife and Amusa, a converted Christian maintained that it was bad tradition.

The white messiah complex of Mr. Pilkings was also evident from his assumption that arresting and preventing Elesin Oba from committing ritual suicide was saving his life. Elesin Oba, clearly, was not very pleased with this because he knew what it entailed for him and the rest of his community, telling Pilkings: “You did not save my life, District Officer. You destroyed it.”

The play also emphasises the theme of duty. It was evident that the writer had intended to hold Elesin Oba solely responsible for the outcomes of his actions. Elesin Oba was happy to enjoy the privileges of his office but unwilling to perform his customary duty.

His irresponsibility and distraction by the privileges he enjoyed were chided by the Iyaloja, when she encourages him to stay true to the ritual upon which the good of his society depends, “Eating the walnut is not so difficult as drinking water afterwards.” He also delays in carrying out his duty by going to marry a young bride and inadvertently provides Mr Pilkings enough time to stop him.

The events take a tragic turn when Olunde convinced it was his duty to fulfil tradition and maintain the spiritual well-being of the community where his father had failed, committed suicide in his place. Olunde’s stronger sense of responsibility, in spite of the fact that he hadn’t enjoyed the privileges his father had, further darkens the shadow already cast on his father’s actions and amplifies his shame.

The production was a terrific watch. The actors, singers and dancers all understood the assignment and delivered sublime performances both individually and as a group. I didn’t expect any less from a partnership between the MTN Foundation and Bolanle Austen-Peters and I certainly was not disappointed.

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