Perhaps I should add a disclaimer before I begin this piece. I’m Nigerian. Yoruba – And I write creatively. I’ve been told this may have prejudiced my impression of Feast – the Yoruba-themed production currently showing at the Young Vic, and co-produced by The Young Vic and The Royal Court’s international stage programme.
Directed by Rufus Norris, who also directed the acclaimed National Theatre production of ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ three years ago – Feast is certainly ambitious in its goals, which was to dramatize how the culture of the Yoruba, an ethnic group, mainly in present-day south-west Nigeria, has spread to the Americas, the Caribbean, and the UK. Unfortunately, it’s a goal this production never comes close to achieving.
With five writers involved, it was always inevitably going to be an unwieldy beast of a production. The writers from the various countries where Yoruba culture has a notable presence were Yunior García Aguilera (Cuba), Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria), Marcos Barbosa (Brazil), Tanya Barfield (US) and Gbolahan Obisesan (UK). The story of how Yoruba culture came to be diffused across the world is a complex one, and a brave subject for any writer to attempt to tackle with any satisfaction, for themselves or a savvy audience.
(Feast at the Young Vic, 2012)
Toyin Falola, the respected Nigerian historian offers a succinct summary here. Suffice it to say there is plenty of drama in the story(ies), of the Yoruba; most enslaved Yoruba were taken whilst the region was engulfed in a civil war following the collapse of the Oyo empire. It’s a detail only vaguely alluded to in Feast. The journey in the show begins with an exposition on the Yoruba concept of ‘Ori’ and an introduction to the character of ‘Eshu’ – the Yoruba god of the crossroads, purveyor of trickery and chaos is a recurring character in the show, and meant to act as a continuous link in the story as it moves from Africa to the New World, to the modern era. Eshu has frequently been misrepresented as the devil; yet despite a valiant effort, Feast doesn’t get far enough away from this misrepresentation, and in some places falls into the trap of portraying Eshu as a malevolent character.
The show rejects an overarching narrative in favour of a series of occasionally charming vignettes of the experiences of black Africans in history, but with very little specifically illuminating about continental and diaspora Yoruba experience. It has to be said that all of this is delivered in spectacularly beautiful fashion. The set design, choreography, as well as the performances from actors and musicians are on point. Yet, the entire thing fails to convince.
There are many aspects of the diffusion of Yoruba culture across the world to explore. ‘Feast’ never convincingly explores any of them. Taking the Brazilian experience as an example, the drama of disguising one pantheon of Gods as the saints of another on a slave plantation is a story whose richness is not even hinted at in the play. The influence of traditional devotional music to the orisas on the songs of modern Christian worship in Nigeria is well known, as is the fact that Yoruba returnees made up a large bulk of West Africa’s first modern intelligentsia. All this is barely hinted at in a show that settles for pastiche over detail. The on-going relationship of modern [Nigerian] Yoruba people to their own traditional cultures and belief system – sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes resolutely proud is also little explored.
The shocking lack of presence of the modern Yoruba experience in Nigeria or elsewhere in the world– either the language or the experiences of the people – is a glaring omission, which, at least for me, makes this play as a legitimate an exploration of Yoruba culture as Iceland deciding to patent Haggis; the inclusion of some contemporary spoken yoruba would certainly have been a bracing and envigorating addition to the production. Despite this, the cast across the board are great except for one or two moments of painful Yoruba pronunciation – (and I say this as a less than sure footed fluent Yoruba speaker.)
Noma Dumezweni who plays Yemanja displays versatility and grace that is exhilarating, including uttering the immortal lines “I maybe a whore but I’m a communist whore”. The dance numbers, set and costumes are all superlative additions to spectacle. Yes, there’s no doubt that the show offers a great spectacle – but spectacle, commercial appeal and cultural nuance are not mutually exclusive ideas. Norris’ ‘Death and The King’s Horseman’ at the National Theatre [despite the accents] and the Young Vic’s production of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s ‘The Brothers Size’ are both examples of where such cultural nuance and commercial appeal have been combined.
(Nonso Anozie as Elesin Death and the King’s Horseman at the National Theatre, 2009)
Feast began its life as a workshop idea, and has involved up to fifteen writers. The old adage that too many cooks spoil the broth could very well apply here. The internationalism behind Feast and other productions by The Royal Court and The Young Vic is a very good thing; however, writing by rote will never achieve the clarity that could emerge from developing the vision of writers, either from the respective culture, or who have a definitive perspective on it, as Norris and McCraney displayed in their respective productions. Surely the diffusion of a language/culture spanning 10,000 years, with an influence that permeates many parts of the globe deserves more than being shoe-horned into one play.
The ways in which the rich and complex culture of the Yorubas – and indeed many other African cultures [Ashanti, Mandinka, and Vodun, to name a few] spread to so many parts of the world are a world of stories that need to be told. Feast is a good attempt, a good night out but there needs to be more than spectacle when telling such important stories.
Dele Meiji Fatunla