Death and the King’s Horseman is Coming to Screen
by Wale Owoade
Media entrepreneur and filmmaker, Mo Abudu announced recently the adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman for the screen by EbonyLife Films. This was disclosed on Instagram after a meeting with Professor Soyinka in Scotts, London. EbonyLife Films is a company of Ebony Life TV, an Africa entertainment and lifestyle network airing in more than 49 African countries, including the UK and the Caribbean.
EbonyLife Films debuted with Fifty and in 2016, after teaming up with The ELFIKE Collective; the company produced The Wedding Party, which became the highest grossing franchise in the Nigerian film industry. The company’s latest film The Royal Hibiscus Hotel is a star-choked romantic comedy. Ebony Life is also popular for TV series such as Desperate Housewives Africa, Fifty The Series, Dere, Sons of the Caliphate, The Governor and Castle and Castle.
Written during his political exile in the mid-1970s, at a time when he was a fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman is an episode adapted from Western Nigeria’s colonial era. Simon Pilkings, a British district officer tried to stop Elesin Oba, the King’s chief horseman from committing suicide as tradition demands. The play is one of Soyinka’s most scarcely staged, widely admired but less performed.
Last year, Tunde Kelani announced the adaptation of Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel for the screen. Kelani is a director popular for adaptations like 2001’s Thunderbolt: Magun (adapted from Adebayo Faleti’s The Whore) and 2014’s Dazzling Mirage (adapted from Olayinka Abimbola Egbokhare’s novel of the same name. No doubt, with his experience, the screen adaptation will do justice to the text.
However, as many expect another of Soyinka’s gems on screen, literature and film enthusiasts worry if EbonyLife Films can accurately adapt the text to screen. Death and the King’s Horseman is entirely different from what EbonyLife Films has done in the past. The play has a colonial setting, and kneels deep in African culture and tradition. In 1976, an actor backed out during the production of the play in Chicago, her reason being she could not master the text. Death and the King’s Horseman is not an easy play, the Nobel Laureate himself has directed the production of the play for stage only twice in the past. The first was in Chicago in 1976 and later at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1987.
There can also be a problem of misinterpretation of the play; Soyinka has warned would-be producers not to interpret the play as a “clash of cultures”. He said, “I find it necessary to caution the would-be producer of this play against a sadly familiar reductionist tendency.” More detailed announcements regarding the directors and cast for Death and the King’s Horseman are still expected from EbonyLife Films, who hope to add to the number of successful adaptations of African literature to the big screen including Cary Joji Fukunaga’s adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beast of No Nation to Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.
Wale Owoade is a writer, music journalist and pop culture critic. His works have been published in African American Review, Transition, Guernica, Bettering American Poetry, Poet Lore, Duende, The Brooklyn Review, and The Collagist. He received the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations and was shortlisted for the 2017 Brittle Paper Literary Awards. In 2016, Owoade won a scholarship from Research and World History Institute (Tokyo) and was invited to attend the 2017 Callaloo Writers Workshop at Oxford University. His works have been translated into Bengali, German and Spanish. He currently writes on music and pop culture for The Afrovibe, Pan-African Music magazine and Omenka magazine.
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