Soyinka in St. Louis Conversation at Black Rep

Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka

1) Hear Soyinka’s rolling baritone, relaxed, just chatting, sharing wisdom
First, let me give you a link to a 1998 conversation between Harry Kreisler and Wole Soyinka that took place in Berkeley, California as part of the “Conversations with History” series. What is said is still fresh today, AND you’ll get to hear his richly nuanced voice. You can also go over to the Wole Soyinka page there and generally have a grand time.

2) Review of “Death and the King’s Horseman”
Also, please read Paul Friswold’s review “Honor System: The Black Rep impressively mounts Death and the King’s Horseman.”

Soyinka in St. Louis
Flyer for Soyinka’s Black Rep appearance


When Natalie Johnson (The Black Rep’s Director of Marketing) told me that Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature, was coming to St. Louis, I hugged her and did a victory dance, right there in the lobby of the Grandel Theatre. Because I’d taught his work as part of the exam curriculum in both Ghana and Botswana, I was thrilled to think I could meet him in my lifetime.

When I found out there was a two-day Soyinka Symposia at SIU, Carbondale, I signed up and went. You can see these archived posts in AH, AFRICA! category. That symposia was over the sky amazing. Yes, I did meet Soyinka and shook his (dare I say it?) papery hand before he signed his latest memoir “You Must Set Forth At Dawn.” (See post on under Read On category.) In addition to being brainy and wickedly funny, he’s a gracious man who (my father’s term) is “solid.”
You must set forth at dawn cover
Wole Soyinka’s memoir “You Must Set Forth At Dawn”

From the fulsome and heartfilled Carbondale Soyinka Symposia, I’d dashed back to Grandel Theatre (3610 Grandel Square, 314-534-3810, where the informal discussion presented by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company and Washington University’s performing arts and African and African-American studies departments had been moved up two hours. Robert Henke, chairman of the performing arts department was to moderate the discussion with poet, novelist, critic, dramatist, and activist Soyinka.


Distinguished linguist John Baugh and Professor Robert Henke chatted with us as we awaited Wole Soyinkas’ arrival. Soyinka was in transit from the Carbondale, Illinois conference to the stage at the Grandel Theatre. From thence he would be whisked away to the St. Louis airport.

Henke gave us some background to appreciate what we were about to experience by telling us more about Soyinka life and the “fertile mythology he uses as a basis for tragic situation”. Baugh honored Ron Himes, founder of the Black Rep, as an artistic genius and icon.

An impressive gathering turned out to be with Soyinka on this morning. Rudy Nickens (executive director of the Black Rep) Eugene B. Redmond (poet laureate of East St. Louis),
Poet and founding father of River Styx Michael Castro, Civil Rights icon Dovetta Wilson (who died this April at 73), and Chris King (editorial director for the St. Louis-American)…among other luminaries.

We stood when Soyinka made his (unintentionally) dramatic entrance…like the guest of honor arriving late at a dinner party.

Soyinka Kings Horseman

Here, then, is my extremely loose transcript of this historical conversation.

Professor Henke: Tell us about the context for “The Lion and The Jewel” (1958) and the epic “Dance of the Forest.” It’s an interesting yoking.

Soyinka: “Lion and the Jewel” had a ludicrous stimulous. It owes its birth to Charlie Chaplan, one of my favorite comedians. He had just married Oona O’Niel, a much younger woman. I thought, aha, these Europeans do as our chiefs do at home. They take young wives just like our tradition of marriage at home. This subtle dialogue of culture is never completely expressed in the play.

Henke: What makes a civilization great?

Soyinka: In my youth we were not only fierce nationalist, but we were combatants. we were going to liberate all of Africa…from Colonial to independent status. Civilization is built on cruelties. We were not free of this burden of negative history…the exoriating history of Imperialism. I believed in possibility.

Henke: Is the school teacher in “The Lion and The Jewel” related in some way to the typology we see in Comedia del Arte?

Soyinka: [Whose father was a schoolteacher] He’s placed in the schoool context to represent education and literacy in the play. The school teacher’s idea of culture is ballroom dancing, sipping tea, and abandoning traditional foods. “The Lion and the Jewel” is a simple straight-forward story in favor of the cunning of tradition.

Henke: Have you been influenced by poetic dramatist such as Senge and Shakespeare? Could you speak to the link between poetry and drama?

Soyinka: I come from a densely poetic culture. Even hawking criers in the street permeates the poetic surroundings outside my mother’s shop. Mythology inn Yoruba society is very much alive and rendered in poetic language of provers and riddles with which everyday language is laced.

Poetry is all around in African life. You hear it in Mammy Wagons. [We called these always-crowded converted Bedford trucks “Tro-Tros” in Ghana.] There’s a concision, music, and startling matrices.

[I couldn’t catch the onomatapoetic word he used which means “get down,” so, I asked Nigerian poet Obinna Nwakanma for help. Perhaps he was talking about the “Bolekaja”? A sort of engaged polemical poetics made famous by the critics Chinweizu et al, in their critique of the writings of Soyinka’s generation of poets including Okigbo and J.P Clark. It comes from the image of the “Tro-tro” or the “kia-kia” buses and of street lore.

Henke: Diction includes a range of registers.

Soyinka: Yoruba people don’t believe in corrupting English when a new object comes into the culture. For example, the word for grammaphone means “eagle speaks without a fair reply.”

Henke: Detailed stage directions for the dances?

Soyinka: The play comes to me visually, not conceptually, so I’m not thinking about thwarted love or writing dialogue to add adornments.

Henke: Sound is important. The drums.

Soyinka: As I see an actor on the stage, I hear what they’d hear. But dramaturgy has some artificial construction.

Henke: Spaces. Variety of staging. Different from Africa.

Soyinka: Theatre is where it happens, as it happens. TIn Africa, theatre happens in the streets, in the market square, at the chief’s palace, on market day. he sense of space is very fluid!

In the West you slice spacial allowance…almost cinematically if you like.

Henke: “Death and the King’s Horseman” is one of the greatest plays of our age.

Soyinka: Its stimulus was European. What evoked it was history. I saw a bust of Winston Churchhill, the British Bulldog at Cambridge King’s College. Churchill was the symbol of the British Empire. I had an overwhelming desire to give it a push. I resisted, anyway. These are the people who took over entire cultures and got away with it. I locked myself in an apartment for about four days and wrote it.

Henke: Clash of cultures?

Soyinka: “Clash of cultures” was a buzz word of the times. For example, Achebe’s work was described that way, but it is so much more. I wanted to warn readers and veiwers to look deeper. It was factual first, with the historical event triggering it. But one does not necessarily follow all the details literally in translating history into a work of art.

Henke: You’ve seen many productions of “Death and the King’s Horseman.” How have they differed over time?

Soyinka: I’ve seen perhaps seven productios. I never tire of college productions. It’s the professional productions I’m most scared of.

Henke: Influenced by everything you ever read?

Soyinka: All human beings become part of what they eat, taste, smell. We are influenced by music, architecture, painting, and dance. It’s inevitable that from time to time traces of what one has consumed will creep into one’s creative production.

Senge? Irish culture and music are closer to Yoruba. Joan Littlewood said, “At last I’ve met the Black Irish.”

[I think about this time, questions came from the audience.]

Question: Colonialism? Wars?

Soyinka: We must transcend and express our collective national will, resources, and responsibilities. We cannot blame outsiders for recruiting child soldiers. We must accept failure of nerve and lack of vision…and learn. we must take our own humanity as a prime responsibility for independence.

Question: African writers?

Soyinka: If you Google under “African Literature” [big laugh] so many will come up.

Question: Incarceration and forced exile…how affected?

Soyinka: I like to think…not at all! It provided a different rhythm of working. My activities in exile…I’ve never been a passive exile. I consider it a five-year political sabbatical. I always worked with others to overthrow the root of the reason for my exile.

Question: We’re all Africans….?

Soyinka:These definitions and divisions came later. I never take these latest discoveries as final. I don’t like to be final. I just take the latest assessment as that. But, I do know that humanity IS one…SHOULD BE…one. It’s good to retain that philosophy. That’s logical for me.

Question: Drumming in mythology? Censorship?

Soyinka: Traditional modes of expression. We like to think Yoruba’s invented Talking Drums. Their 1.5 octaves imitate the human voice with great accuracy. Drumming is a tool of expression as versatile as human speech, used in ceremony and ritual. When you combine drumming and dirging, you get harmonics and it takes people under…into trance. I had to choreograph a scene to get the actors most vulnerable to trance off the stage. At the JFK and Lincoln Center it was remarkable and sometimes frightening to see how it affected the audience.

Question: Censorship?

Soyinka: It’s difficult to shut a Nigerian up. Censorship is not a very successful business in Nigeria.

Question: William Shakespeare?

Soyinka: I do not believe that William Shakespeare can be over-rated. The man is just a genius.

Question: Conflation of identities: African/Nigerian/Yoruba?

Soyinka: Everyone has several identities. We can even reduce it to “What passport do you carry?” Some people believe in national identity. Some in the Pan-Africanist identity of The Diaspora. These are all intersecting circles. This for me is quite rich. We should all honor our multiple identities wherever we find them.

African-Americans still have to work at entering African culture when staging my plays. There is no intuitive cultural visa.

Question: Commonweath literature?

Soyinka: I resented having my work stamped with the label of “Commonwealth Literature.” I felt it stamped me as a vessel of Colonialism in a strange way and made my squirm. But, you leave it aside and do what you have to do, which is to create.

Question: African diaspora?

Soyinka: Lost out somewhere. Gained somewhere.

Question: What are you working on now?

Soyinka: I never answer that question.

Question: [about Nigerian politics]

Soyinka: An example of failed leadership. When you betray a people, you lose my respect. He chose to turn his rule into one of the worst kind and it’s tragic. That’s why the fight cropped up all the time.

Question: Collaborate with sister at University of Kansas?

I try not to disturb her.

Then Ron Himes whisked Wole Soyinka off to the airport, world citizen that he is. Out in the lobby I huddled with two other women of letters— Lavelle Wilkins-Chinn and Ruth Miriam Garnett as we collected ourselves from being transported into Soyinka’s orbit…and went off for a bite to eat for re-fortify our bodies as well as our souls.

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