Just a week after celebrating Sir Derek Walcott, we have the opportunity to celebrate Wole Soyinka. His play The Lion and the Jewel will be performed by the National Drama Company (NDC) of Guyana at the National Cultural Centre on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 4 and 5, in matinee performances with curtains at 1 pm each day. The production intends to be a timely elucidation of the play for students studying it for Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams.
Significantly, the National Drama Company recently performed Walcott. Ti Jean and His Brothers was performed in September, 2016, also in matinee shows at the Cultural Centre. That was also intended to assist schools since the play is a new addition to the CSEC syllabus. The play was also offered by the NDC in observation of Education Month in Guyana.
What was also important in Ti Jean is that it was a demonstration of new post-modern and ritualistic forms of theatre. These new theatrical styles are also to be seen in The Lion and The Jewel directed by Ayanna Waddell and Nicholas Singh. It is choreographed by Esther Hamer.
The coincidence of these productions by the same company reflects close comparisons between the two authors, because Soyinka in African literature may well be described as an equivalent of Walcott in West Indian literature. Each has made especially vital contributions in his region and they both were, to a large extent, responsible for much of what has made the literature and aided its advancement.
Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 (six years before Walcott) as an outstanding poet-playwright of exceptional qualities who was not only partly responsible for bringing African literature to the world’s attention, but advanced to be its most identifiable writer and one of the foremost voices in post-colonial literature. In poetry, he was associated with the Negritude Movement and the rise of African poetry in English. He is also West Africa’s greatest dramatists, and who was responsible for the advancement of West African drama internationally. He is a playwright, a director in the theatre, an academic and critic. He served at the University of Ibadan and University of Ife.
Most of his poetry is in English with English forms, not often rooted in his native Yoruba traditions. He makes use of such elements as rituals and possession experience as in “Idanre”. Many of his plays are very analytic examinations of the society, giving thorough treatment of the tension between traditional cultural beliefs and modern European intrusions. There is a mix of the spiritual and modernity with many conflicts that arise, as in Death and The King’s Horseman. Alongside those, like Chinua Achebe does, he criticizes the corruption that African countries inherited from the European colonial experience.
The Lion and The Jewel, first performed in 1959, published in 1962, is among Soyinka’s earlier plays. It is a comedy, but a play with very incisive commentary on Nigerian society in early colonial times. On the surface it is the ridiculous and laughable tale of a young school teacher, Lakunle, who lost the girl he wanted to marry, Sidi, to the ageing Baroka the Bale (village chief) because he was too stingy to pay the bride price. But deeper in the drama we find a few tragic strategies, since there is humour at the expense of Lakunle, a young pretender who falls victim because of his hubris. He is arrogant and contemptuous of village customs and is taken down a peg because he is foolishly too cocksure.
Similarly, Sidi is equally proud. She stands up for village customs enough to steadfastly insist that Lakunle must honour the bride price, but is herself lured by the glitter and glamour of the modern lifestyles. She, too, suffers a humbling defeat because of her own hubris – pride, vanity, and narcissism. The play is comic in its presentation of how both the young protagonists and the Bale’s first wife Sadiku are duped and outwitted by the cunning old Baroka. The play is tragic in presentation of the fall of both Lakunle and Sidi, but even more than that – the tragedy of the traditional African village and its ancient culture.
A battle between Baroka and Lakunle over Sidi, who they both desire, the play is also an allegory since it is about the conflict between tradition and modernity, “underdevelopment” and “civilization” with the African society and culture as the prize. It is a fight between the old and the new, with the playwright hesitating to take sides – or did he?
Soyinka makes use of symbolism, first of all in the title. The “jewel” is Sidi – the attractive, desirable belle of the village – representative of beauty, youth and vitality. She might even be the new Africa, at an era in which traditional Nigeria was first being confronted by British colonisers with foreign life-styles and new technology. The “lion” is Baroka – a 62 year-old cunning trickster with a superior maturity – representative of the predator and of power, the old tradition and ancient Africa, whose trademark emblem is the lion, king of beasts.
Very closely linked to this is the element of feminism in the play. It is about women and their place(s) in a very patriarchal society. Women are commodities, subject to a rigid male regime. Sadiku is the loyal first wife of the Bale, who lives very much according to custom and tradition, and is faithful in her service to her husband. She serves as head of his harem and even helps him acquire additional wives. Yet we discover that she resists this subservient role – this existence of being simply a vessel of service, and even a procurer to her husband. She champions the cause of women’s victory over male dominance and power, when she believes that Baroka is impotent. She is in private protest and an avenger against the system.
Sidi begins the play as another agent of female resistance since as a member of the growing new society, she does not subscribe to dominance by men. She stands up to Lakunle and is skeptical of the Bale, is wise to the nets he throws to catch women, jeers and rejects them. She readily joins the older Sadiku in rituals of victory. But Sidi soon becomes little more than a conventional prize to be conquered, claimed and possessed by the man who wins her in the contest. She is no match for tradition and the Bale’s mental power. She proves ineffective in her attempt to change the patriarchal status quo.
The Bale uses his wits to conquer – living very much according to the old social traditions and is the Anansi-type folk hero. He is a strong defender of masculinity and power, of the old ways and of the traditionally anointed male kingship over society.
But the play is boldly post-colonial in its presentation of the east-west conflict. It shows the Bale’s stubborn resistance to changing the ways of the village and how he blocks the threats of modernization. In addition, bribes are effectively used, and suggests that inheritance of corruption from the arrival of Europeans.
Of interest in this NDC production is the staging and performance styles used by the directors, Waddell and Singh. There is the new brand of post-modern techniques. There is the generous use of dance as performance strategy, and the way it goes along with the ritualistic features in the production.
The play is staged to make it clear and alive for the benefit of the schools, but it is also a demonstration of forms of theatre being pursued by the NDC. The cast includes Esther Hamer, who is actress and choreographer, Keon Heywood in the lead role, with Tashandra Inniss and Linden Isles completing the principal leads. Supporting them are Kimberly Fernandes with Nirmala Narine, Onix Duncan, Akbar Singh, Melinda Primo-Solomon, Taneka Caldeira and Subraj Singh.
It is of interest to see the way Soyinka dramatises the cultural conflicts that faced traditional Nigeria in that previous era. You have the task of deciphering who wins the battle staged by the drama. Which side does Soyinka take?