On Familiar Grouse:
DENJA ABDULLAHI FUSES UNCANNY ECHOES OF HISTORY AND MODERNITY IN Death and the King’s Grey Hair
B O O K R E V I E W
Title: Death and The King’s Grey Hair
Publisher: Kraftgriots, Ibadan.
Publication Year: 2014, repr 2016
Pagination : 59 pages
Reviewer: Anaele Ihuoma
Many libraries and catalogues will categorise it as historical drama, but Denja Abdullahi’s Death and the King’s Grey Hair raises as much topical dust as any self-touting contemporary play would. It insinuates that if despots across a wide spectrum of historical, social and geographical space have tended to share a stubborn streak, then they have equally met their match in a civil society resolute and ready to match them grit for grit and guile for guile. In these encounters, oftentimes the tales have been staid and laboured, at other times effervescent and hair-raising. Death and the King’s Grey Hair would be located in-between, perhaps nearer the effervesce point.
Set in Jukun land at a point in history when a cultural and political imperative dictated that the king must relinquish the throne as soon as the first strand of grey hair was found on his head, the play captures the now-solemn, now tumultuous contest for supremacy and custodianship of the sacred mantle of the community. Enacted in seven movements, it resonates with fanfare and intrigue, often reminiscent of early forms of Greek tragedy.
Death and the King’s Grey Hair can be likened to a multicultural echo chamber, given the universe of echoes it reverberates with. First, the title instantly echoes one famously associated with Africa’s first Nobel Prize in literature. In Soyinka’s play, the king’s horseman, Eleshin Oba, must die a death of honour, to be able to continue to serve his master in the other world, but in Denja Abdullahi’s, it is the king himself, who must die, upon the affliction of age, and then get reborn as a lion, for the renewal and overall good of the community. This is a role King Esutu, like Eleshin Oba, is in no hurry to fulfill. The King’s Horseman is a victim of fate, albeit one for which he was well prepared by his job description, but the fun-loving and wily King Esutu is, himself, the active ingredient in his misfortune. What must be termed the checks-and-balances arms of government, (backed by representatives of civil society) wait for him to succumb to ageing and therefore submit to the death rites of the customary Poison Bearer. But the king continues to luxuriate in inexplicable youthfulness, making his watchers restless and suspicious of mischief. However, without proof, they can’t do much. Until the intervention of providence in the form of ‘MAN’ who, much like in Shakespearean comedy, reveals the complicity of a visiting Prince, a randy Oscar Wildean character, upon whom he had eavesdropped. It is the king’s shirking of this cultural onus, by devious means, that makes the triumvirate of ‘parliament’, priest and civil society to activate the next stage, a scheme of regicide via the Poison Bearer. Again, this has strong echoes of Oyo Mesi’s legislative watchdog role in the Oyo Empire of yore.
The principal thesis of this play, in my view, relates to the critical role of those organs of government designed to checkmate a despotic and constitution-flouting monarch. The vigilance of the triumvirate, which may be renamed ‘axis of good’, in this play, goes to a great length to ensure that a wily and despotic king does not plunge the society into anomy. Most commendable is the resoluteness with which they go about their task. Locally, it easily calls to mind Nigeria’s travails during the Third Term imbroglio in her recent history. Globally, there are strong echoes of the awakening of civil society all around the world: The Orange Revolution (Ukraine), The Arab Spring, Brexit, the global Occupy Movement and currently the uncertain political situation in the United States amid the ambivalence of the Mueller Report on President Donald Trump and his dalliance with the old foe, Russia. As in some of these cases, Death and the King’s Grey Hair brings the power of civil society to the fore, even as it raises questions regarding the fine line between fairness, justice and the law. To what extent, for instance, should legal technicalities be allowed to stand in the way of justice and the intent of the law itself? Similarly, it throws up healthy debates around societal good versus individual liberties.
The triumvirate confronts the devious despot even without hard core evidence. Instinct-and-intuition, in this case, was good enough, and in the end, the forces of good prevail over those of despotism and raw power. Often this victory comes at a great price, but it has not stopped the trending, in social media, of contemporary memes of struggle, resistance and hope. Think Sowore:#RevolutionNow! Notwithstanding their overall negative portrayal, the King and visiting Prince have something that many will find sympathy with: their tenacity in holding onto strong opinions vis-à-vis an archaic tradition that greets the king with a death wish.
Abdullahi’s portrayal of, and general attitude to women bears the ambivalence of the Roman god Janus or the Yoruba Eshu: double-faced. On the one hand, young virgins are tossed at royalty, as entertainment items, to assuage the insatiable, raging loins of the king and his cohorts. In fact, one of the king’s famed appellations is ‘owner of a well-stocked harem.’ Related to this, the ship of the family, so dear to women, is torpedoed in such lines as ‘when a woman stays too long in her husband’s house, she becomes a witch’. Even if such ‘wisdom’ is drawn from the communal idioms repertory, is it one to propound a thesis around? On the other side of this Eshu posturing is the very dignified but curiously unnamed ‘1st Woman’ and ‘Woman’, the latter the very symbol of vigilance, courage and sociopolitical activism, whose words galvanise the ‘parliament’ into advancing the status of the stand-off with the King, which ultimately leads to the monarch’s fall. “No power on earth,” she declares,” can save that king born of a woman who rules without paying homage to the mothers.”
The play is simple but with a profound message, in an Achebean manner. It also shows a depth of fine character delineation: the despotic, reckless wine-bibing king versus the sobre, intuitive Gabisi, the so-called guardian of the word/culture’; a highly irritable, wine-swayed son-of-the-king who is wont to engage his father in a womanizing contest, versus a calm, reticent son of Gabisi, (‘poet of the ancients’) who easily (perhaps too easily!) assumes the heavy mantle of his father, with neither remonstration nor a sense of sudden self-importance.
The song-laced play which made the three-man shortlist of the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature 2018, lends itself easily to exuberant histrionics and theatrical action, with strong echoes of Greek and Yoruba drama. A good director would bring out the inherent Alarinjo spectacle. Much more so, the theme is drawn from a traditional practice that, in a clan of Sophocles, Soyinka, Osofisan, and the similarly minded, would have spawned a multiplicity of plays.
Death and the King’s Grey Hair often rises to levels of brilliance in language and dramaturgy, but it is not immune to familiar pitfalls that all too often dent Nigerian plays. A few typos (‘being’ for ‘been’) may be blamed on the proofreading team, or the printer’s devil himself, but the dirge that ‘is started’ amid the very solemn closing moments of Movement Five should probably just ‘rise’ from the participants in the scene. But the drama is so engrossing that you might not notice except you were a diehard editor of the finicky persuasion. Some may have an issue, as I do, with the notion that, other than being lumped together as the harem, there is no mention, by name, of Esutu’s wives, especially for a man who seems to keep them for sport.
Here we have a delicious cultural setting, a natural playground of playwrights, who weave and re-weave the story to distil diverse sociocultural and political aesthetics. It is a wonder that it has taken long for this to happen, at least at this depth. Denja’s may not be the last, but certainly this thought provoking piece has earned its place among Africa’s renascent drama and theatre elite.