Celebrating literary lions

I randomly phoned five friends to find out if they knew about Africa’s foremost playwright, Nigerian political activist and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka or his play, The Lion and the Jewel. Three of them knew nothing about him or his play, which opened on Tuesday at the State Theatre in Pretoria. One friend probed her memory, asking: ‘Wasn’t he the artist guy who came to Jo’burg with only R100?”

Two said they knew of Soyinka, the wild-haired man with the look of boxing promoter Don King, though none had read his works.

So when I went through the notes of my interview with James Ngcobo, director of the play, I understood why he is trying to break free from being ‘imprisoned in local narratives” — the ones with which he, as a South African, grew up. Although Ngcobo has directed two works based on the writing of local playwrights — Zakes Mda (The Hill and You Fool, How Can The Sky Fall?) and an adaptation of Es’kia Mphahlele’s The Suitcase — in the past year, he says: ‘We have to look beyond [our] horizon.”

He has been casting appreciative glances at the world beyond. The Lion and the Jewel, written by a non-South African, will be the second play he has directed this year. He previously did James Baldwin’s church-set drama, The Amen Corner, at the Market Theatre.

Ngcobo says he has always known Soyinka’s plays Kongi’s Harvest and Death and the King’s Horseman, but says that when he read The Lion and The Jewel he ‘completely fell in love with it”. The play is set in the village of Ilujinle in Nigeria and features a young man who idolises modern European living at a time when all things Western were yet to be embraced in Africa. It is an exuberant and intensely wordy story that can be summed up as the conflict between tradition and modernity.

The Lion and the Jewel was first performed in 1959 to huge popular and critical acclaim. In 1960 Soyinka was asked by the Nigerian government to write a play celebrating Nigeria’s independence. The play he came up with, A Dance of the Forests, was described as ‘a lyrical blend of Western experimentalism and African folk tradition”. But critics found fault with his work and what they saw as a slavish fascination with Europe’s literary traditions.

Some of these chief critics were writers within the Negritude school, a trans-Atlantic literary movement that celebrates blackness. Soyinka mocked the association, noting that ‘the tiger does not boast of his tigritude”.

‘We carefully decided not to have people with Nigerian accents in our production,” Ngcobo says.

This could have been construed as a caricature of Nigerians and, says Ngcobo, local audiences might well have missed some of the text. The Lion and The Jewel is the kind of play that is borne as much by action on the stage as by its ebullient use of language. ‘When we do Hamlet we don’t pretend to be Danish,” Ngcobo says. But, although the play has a South African cast, it still remains rich in, and is faithful to, Nigerian idioms.

This work is part of a celebration of African authors, because, Ngcobo argues: ‘If we don’t celebrate these writers no one will.” Nat Nakasa, Casey Motsisi and many others are still to be feted.

When Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the Nobel committee noted ‘his roots in the Yoruba people’s myths, rites and cultural patterns, which in turn have historical links to the Mediterranean region. Through his education in his native land and in Europe he has also acquired deep familiarity with Western culture.”

Ngcobo believes South Africans now have the leisure and means to produce plays such as Soyinka’s, which deal with normality and not the issue-based plays of the past. ‘There has never been a better time to do black classics,” he says.

Ngcobo has always been struck by the ‘universality of black experience”. Perhaps by adapting great works from the continent and overseas he will bring Soyinka, Baldwin and many others into South Africa’s popular imagination.

The play features TV actors Ntati Moshesh, Fezile Mpela and Sello Maake ka Ncube, who appeared recently at home and abroad in The Lion King. Ngcobo says when he approached Ncube he said: ‘I am taking you from one lion to another.”

The Lion and the Jewel plays at the Arena at the South African State Theatre in Pretoria until May 4. Tel: 012 392 4000. The show moves to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg from May 8 to June 22. Tel: 011 832 1641 Book at Computicket

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