Drama is Always Relevant

I’m teaching a new-to-me play in my Introduction to Drama course this semester: Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. I feel quite ignorant for not having read any of his work before, but I am an Americanist, after all. The play is one of his best known works, though he wrote poetry, essays, and books, in addition to plays. It is based on a historical event for which I can find irritatingly little information about: the intervention of a British colonial officer in Nigeria which prevented a ritual suicide in a local village in 1946.

The play contrasts the Yoruba rituals of the Nigerian village with the cultural trappings of the British occupiers. Soyinka warns against seeing this as a mere “clash of cultures,” which he says “presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter.” This is part of his directive to producers of the play, in order to avoid presenting the conflict as a struggle of equals simply misunderstanding each other, when it is in fact a struggle between occupier and the occupied, colonizer, and the colonized. The struggle (if that is even a suitable word here) in such cases is never equal, as Soyinka reminds us. The play itself makes this clear, as the British colonizers have guns and resources unavailable to the villagers. Yet beyond being a very good play, I found the dialogue to be remarkably modern in places, and that it even anticipates current debates over cultural appropriation.

When we are introduced to the British officer Pilkings, and his wife, Jane, they are preparing for a costume ball being held at the British Residency, and at which the King’s brother, Prince Henry, will be in attendance. The Pilkings are dressed in egungun clothing the colonial officers confiscated from the villagers during an arrest. These costumes can be part of a variety of ceremonies, but the play refers to garments worn during ceremonies honoring ancestors who have passed on. The spirits of the ancestors are invited to dwell in the community during such a ceremony, and may in fact momentarily possess the wearer of the garments.

Upon seeing Officer and Mrs. Pilkings wearing the egungun clothing, the indigenous police assistant officer Amusa becomes frightened and is unable to speak to either of them, as he is afraid and shocked. He tells them it is improper for them to wear clothing associated with the “dead cult” and that he cannot speak about death (specifically, the ritual suicide about to take place) to someone in a costume related to death: “I arrest ringleader but I treat egungun with respect.” The Pilkings tell Amusa he is being ridiculous. Later, the character Olunde arrives to see Mrs. Pilkings dressed in the egungun costume. Olunde is himself a villager, but has been studying medicine in England. (He has come back because it is his father who intends to commit suicide.) Jane asks for reassurance from Olunde that he isn’t shocked by her costume, and he assures her he is not. She says that wearing is “all in a good cause,” meaning for the ball and the arrival of the Prince. Then, Soyinka provides a rather cogent anticipation of that white-person-in-inappropriate-cultural-costume trend that rears its ugly head every Halloween:

OLUNDE: “And that is the good cause for which you desecrate an ancestral mask?

JANE: “Oh, so you are shocked after all. How disappointing.”

OLUNDE: “No I am not shocked Mrs. Pilkings. You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.”

JANE: “Oh. So you’ve returned with a chip on your shoulder. That’s a pity, Olunde […]”

Every Halloween, it seems, people of color have to contend with foolish costume choices by white people who are either deliberately ignorant or deliberately cruel in their understanding; Soyinka indicates here that it doesn’t matter why it is done, or whether it is purely accidental. It is still a kind of desecration at worst, or illustrative of a lack of respect at best. The Pilkings’ attitude here, toward the egungun costumes, reflects their later attitude toward the ritual suicide in the village. The Horseman of the late King is duty bound by Yoruba tradition to commit suicide; by preventing him from completing this responsibility, they interfere in a web of cultural and familial relationships they do not understand. And because they refuse to respect that which they do not understand, tragic results follow.

None of us can ever hope to know every detail about every culture on earth. But speaking as a white person, I can say that we tend to use that as a justification for not learning, and/or just not caring. And even worse, we dress up in these “costumes” for no particular important reason–for parties, for contests, for FUN. Heaven forbid we maybe not don the garments of another person’s culture just so we can look super cool in front of our other white friends. And, should a person speak up about the hurt or damage such cultural appropriation causes, we dismiss them as “too sensitive,” “too PC,” or “having a chip on their shoulder.”

As an educator, I am so happy to have finally read Death and the King’s Horseman, and appreciate how adroitly it speaks to this particular issue and others. I may sound naive, but I am a firm believer in the power of education–specifically, of centering minority voices and exposing students to voices outside their everyday experience–to shape minds and attitudes.

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