Court Theatre

I suppose I could look at it any number of ways.

I could choose to see The Lion and the Jewel as a chance to watch some really sharp Nigerian-style choreography, done to some really rich Nigerian-style percussion: A trio of drummers shows up from time to time throughout the show, backing a dance troupe that performs everything from satirical pantomimes to Afro mummers’ plays to steamy/funny courting rites. All of it really wonderful.

Or I could choose to see the show as an allegory–a pure play of metaphors, where each character represents a larger principle and relationships unfold according to poetic rather than behavioral laws. Certainly, the title encourages that view: the jewel is Sidi, a beautiful young woman who becomes the toast of her podunk Nigerian village when she’s photographed for a magazine; the lion is Baroka–the strong, sly, frisky village patriarch who decides to make Sidi his youngest bride. The intrigue between these two and Lakunle–the local Oreo, who wants to burn the forest, throw cocktail parties, and turn Sidi into a modern English housewife–pretty much begs to be read as a fable about the power of old age, old ways, and old urges versus all that’s new and modern and bloodless.

If nothing else, I could choose to see The Lion and the Jewel as a cultural adventure. An evening’s trek through Nigerian folkways and means.

But (call me stickler, call me wet blanket) all I see, finally, when I strip away the music and the metaphors and the foreignness and look at what actually happens in Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s script–all I see is the story of a young woman who gets caught in a tug-of-war between two arrogant, thoroughly self-involved men. A woman whose future is ultimately decided for her by one of those men, using a trick that looks an awful lot like what we here now might call rape.

No other vision of The Lion and the Jewel can knock this last one out of my head.

Unfortunately, Jonathan Wilson seems to have found it easy enough to knock it out of his. Under Wilson’s direction, this Court Theatre production pretends to be nothing but music, metaphors, and foreignness. The plotting and deceit Soyinka describes are rendered here as little more than cute, sit-comish machinations–the sort of twists you tame with a big wink and a smile; the crime against Sidi is fudged completely.

Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel is, without a doubt, a funny and magical piece of work: full of folk fantasy, folk wisdom. But it’s also got its share of folk cruelty. And more than that–its share of hard political reality as well. Written in 1962–when Soyinka was a young man helping to build the Nigerian republic that would be established in 1963 only to be wrecked three years later (remember Biafra?)–Lion expresses something beyond an anthropologist’s affection for tribal traditions. It expresses the simultaneously admirable and ugly ruthlessness of a tribal chief’s will to survive.

Wilson tries to suppress this bitter element. More accurately, he tries to dress it up in gorgeous African prints, make it shimmy, and slip it through incognito. The result is a show that, at best, fails to make dramatic sense–especially of the women, whose very obvious bitterness remains entirely unexplored; at worst the show reeks of first-world condescension, implying that these Africans–Sidi, particularly–can be dismissed as simple people whose lives are mended by a few feathers and a song.

To be fair, I’m not sure Wilson could have done anything more complex if he’d wanted to. Though JoNell Kennedy and John Watson Sr. look wonderful as Sidi and Baroka, neither one seems capable of conveying anything like a sense of character. Not here, anyway. A sort of equatorial Petruchio-and-Kate byplay might have given them some substance, but these two barely manage concepts like “surprise” and “anger.” I felt like jumping up and holding Kennedy’s face still after a few minutes of watching her try to twitch her way into various emotions.

It’s sad to see an evidently capable actor like Tim Douglas directed to subvert himself: he’s clearly been instructed to play Lakunle as a complete fop, when the character can support so much more. Then, too, it’s not only sad but strange to see a good actor like Sam Sanders stand by and play a minor role, when he’d make an excellent Baroka.

So basically, if you choose to see Wilson’s Lion, my advice is to see the spectacle of it–the dancing led by Darlene Blackburn, the music led by Elihoenai, even those African prints by Jeff Bauer–and do your best to forget the story. To forget Sidi. To forget Soyinka.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.