Wole Soyinka—writer, Nobel laureate, activist and professor—is a wanderer, or flâneur, someone who experiences a place on foot.
"I just like walking," he says. "Especially when I'm in a new place, I walk a lot. Getting lost I enjoy also, because I have to find my way back."
Words like "place," "home" and even "here" are complex for Soyinka. In a recent lecture at the National Humanities Center (NHC) in Research Triangle Park, where he has been a fellow this fall, he read a passage that had been edited out of his 2006 memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. After he described a predicament in which a consulate dithered over what to do with a writer holding two international passports but lacking the Nigerian one, which had been seized by dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, Soyinka quipped, "I live one-third in the U.S. and Europe, one-third in Nigeria and one-third up in the air."
This absurdity informs Soyinka's The Beatification of Area Boy, which concludes its run at Duke's Reynolds Theater on Oct. 31 under Jody McAuliffe's direction. Set in Lagos, the play conveys the pace of life in the capital, as interludes of marketplace camaraderie are interrupted by an indignant American businessman, a "genital thief," refugees from an adjacent neighborhood being converted into a resort, a mother grieving a child just run over and an egomaniacal colonel. In other words, a typical day under Nigerian martial law.
Splitting time between the NHC and the set at Duke, Soyinka helped members of the all-student cast prepare for their roles. Actor Julian Spector, who plays both a prisoner and a soldier among his four parts in Area Boy, was humbled and impressed by Soyinka's presence.
"He gave us a personal link to life in Lagos," Spector says. "Everything from ... the behavior of prison gangs out to clean the streets to the heaviness of a bean pottage called konkere because of its resemblance to concrete."
Although he enjoys working with students, Soyinka otherwise keeps a low profile, saying that when he directs the work of others, "I lock the writer out of the theater." Working with youth has been a constant in Soyinka's life, regardless of where he is. He holds emeritus positions at universities in Nigeria and Nevada, and now teaches at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.
As a teacher and scholar, Soyinka is far from passive, particularly in his native land, where the political party he helped found, the Democratic Front for a People's Federation (DFPF), was recently officially recognized after years of battles in court. The DFPF is also an anti-corruption group, and it aspires to give Nigeria's youth a clear voice amid the political disarray.
"The youth are very discontented, and they grumble all the time that they have been frozen out of action by the old brigade recycling themselves again and again," Soyinka says. "So this is really for them to have a platform, to be face-to-face with the older generation."
As he described the current Nigerian atmosphere as "heated" in the wake of a bomb that went off on Oct. 1 during festivities in Abuja commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of British rule, Soyinka's demeanor changes to that of a statesman.
"Nigeria's in a rather volatile state right now, in the hands of a very ambitious president [Goodluck Jonathan] trying to subvert the constitution and award himself a third term in office," Soyinka says. "These creatures keep surfacing. So we have a halting process, rather than a developing democratic process."
Soon, Soyinka will return to Nigeria, where he will work on a different production of Area Boy. "It will be the premiere in Nigeria," he says with weary pride. The play's original premiere was canceled after Abacha seized power, forcing Soyinka into exile in 1994.
Although the production closes a loop of sorts for Soyinka, he won't see the show, just as he missed last weekend's performances at Duke. "I like seeing the work in progress, and to let the play be," he explains.
Perhaps he will again be seen wandering around town until the play is over.