Nigerian drama blends plot, pageantry. `Death and the King's Horseman' on stage

Death and the King's Horseman Written and directed by Wole Soyinka. Toting their wares, the market people converge from the aisles onto the blazingly lit stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Their convergence, with drums and singing, establishes the extraordinary pulse and teeming human presence of ``Death and the King's Horseman,'' Wole Soyinka's poetic drama set in 1944 Nigeria. The play is having its New York premi`ere at Lincoln Center. This prelude of color and motion transports the spectator to the scene of the events that follow.

The marketplace hubbub climaxes with the arrival of Elesin, Horseman of the King (Earle Hyman). Elesin is about to meet the ritual, self-imposed death which will, according to tribal superstition, join him with the king, whose demise occurred a month previously. (``No one will kill him. He will simply die.'') The scene includes the first of the flights of eloquence in which Mr. Soyinka establishes the flamboyantly noble character of the king's horseman. It is left to Olohun-iyo, the Praise Singer (Ben Halley Jr.) to express the crowd's fervent admiration of this legendary warrior, the late king's closest friend.

Elesin (pronounced El-ee-shin) responds in a variety of ways to the general adulation. After briefly teasing his admirers, he delivers an ironic commentary on the ``Not I'' behind which the frightened hide when death approaches. Finally he selects a beautiful young girl, already betrothed, to be his ``bride'' before he ends his life.

Soyinka quickly shifts the scene to the bungalow veranda where British District Officer Simon Pilkings (Alan Coates) and his wife, Jane (Jill Larson), are tangoing in anticipation of the evening's fancy-dress ball at the British residency. They are interrupted by Sergeant Amusa (Ernest Perry Jr.), who is appalled and terrified to discover them wearing ``death'' costumes confiscated from some recently arrested cultists. When Pilkings is apprised of Elesin's intention, he begins trying to avert the fatal ritual.

``Death and the King's Horseman'' chronicles the tragic effects of his blundering efforts. (The play is based on an actual incident.) The situation is complicated by the arrival of Elesin's eldest son, Olunde (Eriq La Salle), who has been studying medicine in England. To the dismay of the naively well-meaning Jane, Olunde accepts his father's forthcoming self-sacrifice.

Nobel laureate Soyinka dramatizes the complex of countercurrents in a variety of ways. Such intense confrontations as those between the Pilkings and Olunde contrast with the hilarious free-for-all in which some obstreperous schoolgirls make fools of three black policemen. Underneath it all lie the irreconcilables of a situation in which obtuse occupiers run roughshod over a native population. Apart, however, from his contempt for the contemptuous British, the author gives no indication of whether he condemns or condones Elesin's death-willing act.

Notwithstanding four pages of background notes, some of the play's more extended poetic and mystical passages may create difficulties of understanding for the uninitiated spectator. But ``Death and the King's Horseman'' is nevertheless a fascinatingly rich tapestry in dramatic form. As his own director, Soyinka has staged a performance that blends individual elements with the populous pageant that embraces the plot's unfoldment.

Mr. Hyman brings exceptional strength, authority, and eloquence to the central role of Elesin. This magnificent actor is equal to every demand of the role, whether Elesin is glorying in his warriorship or physically diminishing into an almost wraithlike figure. Besides those already mentioned, the fine cast includes Trazana Beverley as the ``Mother'' of the Market, Sylvia Best as the silent Bride, Abdoulaye N'Gom as the Pilkings's Christian houseboy, and Dillon Evans as the British Resident.

The large ensemble contributes to the sense of ritual, rhythmic movement, and atmosphere, as do the accompanying drummers (Kimati Dinizulu, Yomi Obileye, Tunji Oyelana, Edwina Lee Tyler).

Judy Dearing's resplendent costumes set the visual tone. The production (which runs through April 5) is equally well served by David Gropman's scenery and Pat Collins's lighting.

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