Play: Death and the King’s Horseman

Group: St. Louis Black Repertory Company

Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square

Dates: Thursdays through Sundays through April 13

Tickets: From $28 to $43; $20 rush hour special on Fridays, student rush price $10; contact 314-534-3810

Story: It is 1944, and the long arms of the British Empire extend into Nigeria in southwest Africa. The king of the ancient Yoruba city of Oyo has died, and according to tribal custom his dog has been slain, his horse has been killed and his horseman, Elesin, now prepares to commit suicide at the end of a celebratory day in order to accompany the ruler safely into the next world. News of this action reaches the British colonial district officer, Simon Pilkings. He intervenes, as he did previously in overruling the horseman to allow Elesin’s eldest son, Olunde, to study medicine abroad. Pilkings actions this time, however, lead to near riotous unrest among the villagers as they strive to bring their world back to traditional order.

Highlights: The Black Rep touts its 31st season as "told by the griot," or storyteller. Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka’s drama, based on a true incident, is every bit the master griot at the top of his form and a mostly compelling production under Segun Ojewuyi’s meticulous direction. Most spectacular is a towering, twin-faced visage by set designer Bobbie Bonebrake that brings both joy and an ominous portent to the proceedings through the beautiful illumination designed by Mark Varns. Add the bright, colorful costumes conceived by Kathryn Wagner and the lively drumming of Arthur Moore and Adebisi Adeleke, complemented by a whimsical sound design from Bryce Dale Allen, and the stage is set for the story to unfold.

Other Info: Played out in two acts over five scenes, Ojewuyi would do his audience a service by paring 10 minutes out of both the first and third scenes, each set in the village marketplace. Entirely too much time in the three-hour performance is spent slowly describing the horseman’s day and his date with destiny, bogging down the first act considerably. Act Two is substantially more riveting, as the conflict between African tradition and European meddling is brought to the fore, with predictably tragic results.

Ron Himes and John Flack are superb choices for the roles of Elesin and Pilkings, respectively. Himes brings a jaunty worldliness to the horseman that turns into glowering fear and contempt upon his imprisonment, while Flack imbues the English official with just enough venality and stupidity to make him contemptible as well as dangerous.

The supporting cast includes Linda Kennedy in a marvelous turn as a powerful woman villager who rebukes Elesin for his failure and Keith Tyrone in a smoothly facile performance as the self-explanatory Praise-Singer. Nicole Fabbri portrays the officer’s wife as both silly and understanding, while Kelvin Roston Jr. brings a deep sensitivity and conviction to the horseman’s eldest son.

There’s nice work by Khenemu Menu-Ra and Tobore Alaba as naïve native sons-turned-British soldiers and servants, Leah Stewart as the horseman’s silent bride, John Meurer as the officious English governor and Tom Glessner as his nasty sergeant. The market women are played by Brandi Austin, Talichia Noah, Sherry Stephens, Roselind Emuge, Racquel McKenzie and Leslie Jordan.

Despite a sometimes sluggish first act, Death and the King’s Horseman is a wonderful tale handsomely told and executed in this fine production.

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.