JOHANNESBURG — “King Baabu,” the first play by Nigeria’s Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka since he fled the country in 1994 during the darkest days of military rule, puts Africa’s tyrants, and tyrants in general, on trial.
The playwright tells reporters during a break in rehearsals at a government college in the Nigerian town at Badagry that the play is set in an imaginary African country and tells the story of a military man who seizes power and then tries to turn himself into a civilian ruler. The play is an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi.”
” ‘King Baabu’ explores the seemingly endless bestialities that have become the hallmark of Africa’s dictators and the savagery of civil wars … (caused by) their interventions in democratic life,” says 67-year-old Soyinka, who has authored 22 plays and was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1986.
His latest work goes beyond the tribulations of the African continent because of the universality of its themes, he says. “This play’s universality takes the mind beyond Africa’s borders.”
The name “Baabu” is an adaptation of the word “babu,” which means “nothing” in Nigeria’s Hausa language.
His latest work draws on the playwright’s own experiences under Nigeria’s late military ruler Sani Abacha, but also draws on other dictators, such as Ivory Coast’s ousted ruler Robert Guei.
Soyinka now teaches in the U.S. but frequently returns to Nigeria. The production, which features a mixed Nigerian-British cast, backed by a Swiss stage crew, is being supported by the British Council, the Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency and the Prince Claus Fund from the Netherlands.
It will premiere at Nigeria’s National Theater in Lagos on Aug. 6, and on successive nights in three Nigerian cities before being taken to Europe and other African countries.