Even the briefest of encounters with Wole Soyinka—celebrated playwright, essayist, activist and winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature—is enough to make evident the qualities that are at the crux of his accomplishments. A formidable and centered man, he speaks with a quiet and utter confidence-a confidence that belies his personal fury for the events of June 12,1993, which rendered him into exile from his native Nigeria.
It was on that day that a military coup prevented a newly elected civilian government from assuming power. Large numbers of Nigerians had voted across ethnic and regional lines in what was widely seen as the country’s most democratic election ever-an event that, in Soyinka’s eyes, was his homeland’s last best hope of becoming a free and viable nation. But the military strongman Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who had ruled Nigeria for eight years (in the process building one of Africa’s largest private fortunes), forbade publication of the voting results and, in place of the election’s ostensible winner, installed his own deputy, the brutal Gen. Sani Abacha, as head of state. Soyinka celebrated his 60th birthday with a protest march against Abacha’s takeover, an action that led to threats of house arrest and the writer’s movement into exile.
From this vantage, stateless but hardly alienated, Soyinka has continued to bring the issues of Africa to the table, so to speak. His most recent play, The Beatification of Area Boy, arrived in America in October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, following its debut in Leeds, England last year; his impassioned philosophical essay The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, was published last August by Oxford. The two works illuminate distinctly different but complementary sides of Soyinka: the anecdotal, celebratory playwright with a penchant for portraiture and whimsy, and the fiercely angry polemicist, producing what he once called “monster prodigies of spleen.”
A full measure of the writer’s righteous anger cannot be taken without considering a second incident of outrage: On Nov. 10,1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Soyinka’s friend and fellow dissident writer, was executed by the military government, along with eight other members of the Ogoni ethnic minority. Soyinka, himself a member of the Yoruba majority, had arduously campaigned throughout the world community for their release, and for the cause of the Ogoni, who have waged a desperate battle for survival against overdevelopment and international oil interests.
Soyinka’s plays—the best-known of which is the Yoruban epic Death and the King’s Horseman, which was directed by the author in an acclaimed 1987 production starring Earle Hyman at Lincoln Center Theater—keep such practical political matters at arm’s length, or at a poetic remove. The Beatification of Area Boy takes the form of a lively slice of life as it explores the condition of Nigeria’s urban poor, young boys who survive in the environs of a shopping complex in Lagos through a savvy that almost always involves hoodwinking the unwitting, innocent shopper or tourist. Sanda, a failed revolutionary, surreptitiously manages the “boys” while serving as the complex’s chief security guard. Street vendors and madmen are the plays other principal characters. The plot thickens when Sanda encounters Miseyi, a former lover and college student, on the eve of her wedding to a key military officer. But flowing like a stream beneath the play’s buoyant surface is an underlying awareness of the offstage exodus of a million people, forcibly resettled at the whim of the military government.
Soyinka the dramatist clearly shies away from prescribing solutions to the wretched conditions in the play, reserving his ideas about correctives for Open Sore of a Continent. There Soyinka summons the international community to discuss the urgent problems of African nationhood, fashioning a philosophic imperative to do the right thing in Africa. The Nigerian people, he points out, did not repudiate nationhood-they voted their hunger for it, only to see their will criminally denied. “A nation is a collective enterprise,” he writes; “outside of that, it is mostly a gambling space for the opportunism and adventurism of power.”
As one talks with Soyinka about his art—an art indelibly linked to his ideas of nationhood in this age of Nigerian uncertainty, and to the rich and complex mythology of Yoruba culture—his countenance betrays neither lament nor brooding. Rather his indomitable spirit is a nourishing symbol of African perseverence.
DALE BYAM: Do you write in response to something, or can it simply be a mood?WOLE SOYINKA: A mood, or just an idea in my head I know there are writers who get up every morning and sit by their typewriter or word processor or pad of paper and wait to write. I don’t function that way. I go through a long period of gestation before I’m even ready to write. Take Death and the King’s Horseman. The story of that play [based on a true incident in 1946, in which the horseman of the title was prevented by resident colonial authorities from following his deceased king to the grave by committing ritual suicide] is something I had known for about 10 years before I got down to writing it. One day it was just ready to be written. The muse had mounted my head, shall we say, and I sat down and wrote the play, and that was that.
When you write a play, is there a particular audience that you have in mind?
It would be more accurate to say I have a company in mind to perform the play. I used to work very closely with two different companies in Nigeria, and while I’m not writing the plays as vehicles for them, in certain cases I do have certain actors in mind for certain roles. One of the companies I used to run did what I call guerrilla theatre—we made instant improvisations on themes of the day and gave performances in market places, outside civil service offices, outside the houses of assembly members. Obviously the plays were targeted not merely at the specific audience, which is Nigerian, but also created for a specific time when certain events are fresh in the mind.
There are other plays, like Opera Wonyusi, my adaptation of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, which are particularly targeted at Nigerian audiences. Even though this play was written before the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight Ogoni people, there’s no way anybody would see this play—which involved the military, and takes place in Nigeria—without immediately thinking of this universally traumatizing event. I know that for me, who went to speak to heads of state after the sentences were confirmed, it was so disquieting that I couldn’t function for about three days.
It is pleasant to find that even though Opera Wonyusi was produced outside Nigeria, it is receiving a tremendous response. I saw it in Zurich with mixed audiences, and it’s amazing how people responded to it.
Do political events direct your work, or are they a distraction from work that you ideally want to do?
My creative temperament is rather eclectic. I find I’m in the mood some days to write a densely mythological play like Death and the King’s Horseman; at other times, I write lighthearted “scoops” like the Jero plays, such as The Trials of BrotherJero, about the power trips of a prophet who feeds on his followers’ dissatisfaction; then there are ritualistic plays like Strong Breed. Anything which agitates me sufficiently to start conceiving of an event to strike a feeling of revenge, a projection in creative terms-that’s what gets onto the paper.
Are there any plays that have worked better on paper than on stage?
For me a play can never work better on paper than in performance. You can say, perhaps, that the performance has not quite fulfilled the expectations of the play; the performance may understate the playwright’s intentions, or distort them completely. But the play on paper isn’t working yet. You can enjoy reading it like a piece of literature, yes, that’s true. Some read better than others, but they don’t come to life until they’re on stage.
I understand the director of Area Boy, Jude Kelly, actually visited Nigeria to find actors. Is it necessary to have Nigerians in the play?
Well, yes, even when I direct my plays outside Nigeria I always do everything possible to bring a core of my company—four, five or six actors—to participate in the production. It makes a difference with certain plays. You try to create a certain atmosphere in the kind of plays which involve community. To create the atmosphere, the color, the tone, to infect the others who are alienated from that environment, you cannot guess the difference it makes to have a community of actors. Also, in this kind of play I use a lot of local music.
Because you are of the Yoruba culture but very representative of the whole of Nigeria, have you managed to straddle the ethnic contradictions?
First of all, I don’t believe in ethnic contradictions. (There are, however, collisions of ethnic interests which the government orchestrates.) Take Strong Breed, for instance the ritual of the carrier I used in that play is not a Yoruba ritual at all. It is a ritual from the Ibo, in the eastern part of Nigeria. Others of my plays incorporate many things which most Nigerian ethnic groups will recognize. But essentially, my culture dominates my plays, and naturally it is the Yoruba culture.
No one considers it a transgression when you incorporate ethnic rituals in your work?
They have no right. Culture is not their property. Culture is universal.
Even when it is attached to a religious framework?
Oh, some people find, for instance, my spoof Brother Jero offensive—it’s offensive to the Christian religion, although others of my plays have spoofed religious extremism all over the place. But there has been no price on my head yet.
Sitting in a New York cab driven by a Nigerian, I mentioned your Beatification of Area Boy. This taxi driver became so excited by the mere mention of your name. He had read your work during his school years in Nigeria. How do you reconcile your celebration in that society with the present reality that you are in virtual alienation…exile?
My condition is not one of permanent exile. There’s no question at all, though, that my condition is one of partial alienation. That alienation, of course, triggers off the need to respond in some fashion—in some creative way. If you’re painter, you respond as a painter; if you’re a musician, you respond as a musician. It’s no surprise that some musicians have been jailed by this dictatorship for their music. [The Nigerian pop idol] Fela has been persecuted by a number of regimes—that’s become his way of life. It’s not just writers who are in exile.
But there is no conflict: If you live in a state of social disjunction, on certain levels that becomes your reality. You operate within it, you critique it. From time to time, you act as a citizen and join others in resisting it. You become part of an oppositional movement which cuts across your profession. During the protestations to remove [former Nigerian President] Babangida, you would see all sorts of people there—civil servants, union members, policemen, market women. There were the “touts,” the area boys, as well, some of whom were totally committed, others who took the opportunity to pick a few pockets. The whole society is involved, and the question is which is the real socety at that moment? Is it the predators who are sitting on top, immune in their fortifications? Or is it those masses on the street? Which is the reality?
Which is the reality?
Oh, the people on the streets…with whom I find myself.
Even though a culture of silence prevails amongst these oppressed people?
No, it is not a culture of silence. Sometimes, yes, there is stasis, a seeming acquiescence. But, believe me, there is simmering ferment going on all the time. People may be hobbled by the superior power, the ruthlessness, of a regime like Abacha’s. But talk to those taxi drivers—even those who are here in the U.S.; talk to people who come out from time to time; look at the vibrant underground press in Nigeria, the risks that they take. They are jailed, they are brutalized by the police, their families are sometimes taken hostage. For me, this is the reality, this underground reality. The culture of resistance begins gathering force, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly. You never can tell which way it will go.
As a Yoruba, how do you see yourself in relation to Nigeria?
I am undeniably a Yoruba because I was born into Yoruba; I am a Nigerian because I born into a certain definable entity called Nigeria. What I am saying is that when you compare that entity called Yoruba—or Ogun, or Hausa, or Ibo—when you compare it to the entity called Nigeria, you see that one is not the result of any artificial creation or agreement. It happens to be. It’s like your blood. The other, however, something called Nigeria, was not there 50 years ago. It was invented. What was the purpose of that invention? Was it simply to supply raw material to Great Britain and to the international and commercial world? Or was Nigeria invented in order to cohere all the disparate elements into a single entity, where all have the right to life, liberty, means of education, health, etc., etc.? You must decide, what should be my definition of a nation?
Are both Open Sore of a Continent and Area Boy responding to the military rule in Nigeria?
Open Sore of a Continent is a large discourse. The Beatification of Area Boy is a vignette, a microcosm of society. The characters in the play are not concerned with issues of nationhood—they’re concerned with issues of community and how best to survive; they are responding to the cruelty of a singularly insensitive regime. I wouldn’t say the two works cover the same ground.
The military expulsion, the removal of a million people, which actually happened there, horrified me—it made me feel ashamed to be a Nigerian in a time when such things could happen. One wonders how there can be a nation where people could wake up and be rendered homeless in peacetime, for no reason other than greed. But I’m not asking that question in the play.
Having now traveled so extensively, do you see parallels between the Nigerian condition and elsewhere?
Oh, yes, no question at all there are many such spots on the African continent, and look at what’s happening in some of the Latin American countries—look at “class sanitation,” which takes place in Brazil when the police go and round up all these area boys, little ones, not even the grown-up ones, and shoot them because they think they will grow up into thugs and thieves. Repression is not peculiar to Nigeria.
So what can the performing artist do?
The performing artist is at a disadvantage, as his resources are limited. All an actor can do is join forces. He or she may also decide, “I will not do this kind of play, it’s reactionary or corrupt.” Remember, a writer, a musician, a painter, a sculptor, an architect—these are first of all citizens. Their responsibility is no different from any other citizen. There should be no unfair burden being placed on the artists in society—each artist must choose the degree and capability of his or her commitment to certain issues. You cannot say an artist 24 hours, 7 days a week, must be politically engaged. That’s madness. You cannot make that imposition on a bricklayer or a craftsman; you cannot make it on the artist.
But you find yourself in that position?
It doesn’t mean that I believe that this is the best life. I do what I do because I’m temperamentally inclined to do it. All writers are not the same, just like all preachers are not the same. Some preachers believe that religion should be an instrument of social change, and thank God for that; but there are others who believe that their function is simply to minister to the spirit. Similarly, you have artists who believe that their function is to be revelatory, to open up certain horizons for human striving. I’m an artist and a producer, a creative person, but I’m also a consumer—I like to go into galleries, to listen to music, to read books—and I don’t recall screaming in outrage if a work is not politically engaged, because what I’m consuming at that moment fulfills a certain part of me. The kind of spiritual elevation that is also a part of the function of the artist should never, never be underestimated.
Does your condition overwhelm you?
Oh, yes, sometimes.
How do you temper that?
I go for a drink. At home I’ll pick up my gun and go hunting. The thing I miss here is getting lost in the bush. I just go. I call it sometimes “just taking my gun for a walk.” I can get lost in the bush for hours. Come back very much refreshed, feeling more benevolent towards life in general, because I’ve seen animals who act better than human beings.
Dale Byam teaches theatre in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.