In Death and the King’s Horseman, sacred tradition and colonialism come to a head in Nigeria

In traditional Yoruba society, performing certain sacred rituals is believed to keep the world in order.

In his 1975 play Death and the king’s rider, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka explores the consequences of breaking this metaphysical balance.

Set around World War II, when British colonial authorities still ruled Nigeria, the play centers on the King’s Horseman, who is about to ritually kill himself because the King has just died.

“The king is waiting to continue his journey to the ancestral land. But he needs his king’s rider to come. [with him] so they can continue the roles they had, ”said Tawiah M’Carthy, director of a new audio production of the play put on by Toronto’s Soulpepper Theater Company, in partnership with the Stratford Festival.

The story takes a look at what happens when this tradition is interrupted by the British, who view it as barbaric.

Through each of the characters in the play, Soyinka delves into the nature of tradition, duty, and the devastating effects of colonial interference.

As part of Soulpepper’s Around the world in 80 pieces series, IDEAS Host Nahlah Ayed spoke to M’Carthy about the play’s message and how it continues to resonate today.

Here is part of their conversation.

Why do you think the [British] Do you have such a strong reaction to this news that this suicide is about to take place?

I think it’s because they think they know better. It’s a bigger conversation about what they were doing on this earth anyway. And I will talk about the experience of Ghana: [were they] to do on this earth? Take resources and disrespect people and the land itself. Because for them, the people of this country have fallen lower on the totem pole. They didn’t know things. They needed to be educated and civilized.

Olunde [the horseman’s son] also highlights the fact that the British have their own deadly rituals like war. He speaks of “white races exterminating each other”. Do you see hypocrisy here?

I do. I think it is clear. And that’s also the beauty of what Soyinka was able to do with the piece, placing it in time, because it was happening in their world. [too]. Yes, I think there is hypocrisy there, and I also think there is hypocrisy in the whole notion of the domination of British culture on this land.

Tawiah Ben M’Carthy is a Toronto theater artist of Ghanaian descent. He has worked with various arts organizations across the country including Canadian Stage, Shaw Festival Theater, Stratford Festival, National Arts Center and Buddies in Bad Times. (Submitted by Tawiah M’Carthy)

The horseman and the district officer seem quite resolute. The Horseman is committed to doing his duty to the point of death, and the District Officer is committed to reforming what he considers barbaric culture. How important is the sense of “duty” in this story?

I think that’s part of the underlying themes of the play for me: duty and our roles within our communities. I think at the end of the day they’re both determined to know what they need to do to keep their community running the way it’s supposed to.

The resulting resolution is therefore that they understand the role they play within their individual spaces. And I think that’s why it’s so hard to say, “Oh, this person is a bad guy and this person is the bad guy.” I think if you are able to do it so easily then you don’t take the time to understand the complicated conversations going on in the room.

Do you think there is a sense in which the themes of this play continue to play out today?

Oh, yeah, in so many ways. I describe culture as a way of life. And when you think of the indigenous peoples of this land, when you think of black lives, when you think of immigrants, when you think of the LGBTQ2S + community, trans lives, lives with disabilities, there are so many ways that the mainstream culture is constantly interrupting other cultures. And I think it’s a reminder of that.

If you don’t have time to sit down to understand and respect, don’t interrupt. The very minute we see ourselves as more important than others, we are already starting to hurt. Because even the way we think, it changes the way we interact with these people from other cultures.

So if anything, I always thought this piece was timeless. And even speaking now, I will use Ghana as an example. We are talking about the foreign influences and resources that continue to be extracted from the land, and also the way African bodies are treated outside the continent, and it continues.

Click on HERE for a complete list of credits for audio playback Death and the king’s rider.


* Written and produced by Tayo Bero. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Around the world in 80 pieces is an audio drama series edited by the Soulpepper Theater Company that takes listeners on a journey around the world. IDEAS will be your guide on this journey with radio documentaries exploring the cultural and historical context of these countries. Find more episodes from this series here.


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About Ethel Nester

Ethel Nester

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