We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

File the Washington Shakespeare Company’s latest under “A” for Effort, but don’t forget to weigh that against “B-” for How It All Hangs Together. It’s one of those plays—a large-scale historical tragedy written by a Nobel Prize winner that contemplates death and duty and cultural dissonance from a perspective that blends the European and the non- to create an intriguingly skeptical Other—that greedy theatergoers are always grateful a company has the nerve to tackle. Alas, at the Clark Street Playhouse it’s also one of those productions that leave you wishing everything were as assured as the standout performance that shifts the evening’s dramatic weight to what’s supposed to be a secondary role.

The play is Death and the King’s Horseman, a language-driven, metaphysically inclined epic by Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel literature laureate, and that performance comes courtesy of the charismatic Clifton Alphonzo Duncan, playing Olunde, the British-educated son of a Yoruba leader whose ritual duties put him at odds with colonial authorities in 1943 Nigeria. The language and the metaphysics get a little muddy at WSC, but Duncan anchors his scenes with a cool, collected presence that points up what’s missing in other crucial performances—most unfortunately that of Felipe Harris, who plays Olunde’s father with nothing like the gravitas the part requires.

John Vreeke’s staging does get a good deal right, and in his hands the play works, as it should, on at least two levels. It’s a cautionary tale, and a resonant one for our time, about an imperial culture intervening in a situation it doesn’t understand with results it can’t begin to foresee. Equally important, it’s a mournful, metaphorical take on the flaws and failings of postcolonial Africa’s Big Men: The ramifications of an indigenous leader’s faith-breaking play out not just in his personal downfall but also in the suffering and the eventual revolt of his people.

We’re in Oyo, an ancient center of Yoruba power, and the man striding so showily among the women in the marketplace is Elesin, the cavalry chief whose date with mortality is reflected in the play’s title. He’s a powerful figure, an elder accustomed to the deference and the largess of the locals, but now it’s they who expect something of him into the afterlife: The king he serves has died, and under the dictates of Yoruba tradition, Elesin (Harris) is preparing to follow him into the afterlife. His death is a matter of honor, and by all indications, it’ll be a joyful, peaceable passage—an act of Elesin’s will rather than an act of violence, a sacred ritual attended by the market women and the drummers and the praise-singers of his people, who’ll sing his spirit on its way into the next world.

Things don’t go as expected, though: Struck with lust for a nubile young bride-to-be, Elesin lingers on this side of death’s threshold to enjoy a last taste of earthly pleasure, and his hesitation leaves time for colonial authorities to step in and stop what looks to them like a barbaric ritual suicide. Together Elesin’s failure of will and the British intervention knock the Yoruba cosmos thoroughly out of joint—and as inevitably as if Elesin’s story had been written by some ancient Greek tragedian, some serious sacrifice will be required if things are to be set right.

Unfortunately, some serious sacrifice is required of the audience before Vreeke’s production gets itself fully in gear. Soyinka deliberately sets the play’s long opening scene in an exclusively Yoruba milieu, giving Elesin, his Praise-Singer (Maurice E. Clemons), and the influential woman elder Iyaloja (Towanda Underdue) an extended exchange conducted largely in allusive language; references to tailless cockerels and withering plantain stalks and, meaningfully, the curious “Not-I Bird” (an allegory about lesser mortals and their fear of death’s approach) lie thick on the ground, and Soyinka offers Anglo theatergoers few touchstones by way of which they might find their bearings. The burden, at least until Scene 2 brings the British colonials onstage with a shorthand recapitulation of what’s been going on, rests at least partly with the audience, which must work mightily to decode what turns out on the page to be a pretty ravishing swath of mythopoetics—but the fault here lies firmly with Harris & Co., who haven’t yet found the life in Soyinka’s language that would help them render it transparent.

There are some fine performances, it should be noted. Ian Armstrong and Nanna Ingvarsson gad about obliviously and entertainingly as the lead colonials—though Soyinka is generous enough to allow Ingvarsson’s Jane Pilkings to sense, eventually, just how much damage has been done—and Underdue’s Iyaloja seems to gather to herself the authority of all the world’s women when she reappears in Act 2 to remind Elesin of the warnings he dismissed when she agreed to let him bend the rules and indulge himself with that last-minute conjugation. There’s a febrile energy in the controlled chaos of the market women’s dances (Brooke Kidd is the choreographer), and there’s something magnetic in the rigid stillness of that dutiful young bride (Kamil J. Hazel). And Duncan’s Olunde, who tries to mediate between the world he knows in his bones and the world he’s been schooled to understand, has an unmistakable fatalistic dignity from the moment he appears—a dignity backed by an earnestness that makes his scenes with Ingvarsson’s Jane the evening’s most alive.

That dignity, sad to say, is what Harris’ Elesin is missing. He’s a fine clown, teasing the market women, preening as he spins the story of the Not-I Bird, and he’s got something like the joyous, life-affirming vibrancy Soyinka’s script demands. But never does anything about Harris’s demeanor suggest the man of honor, the respected elder, the leader who could reasonably be expected to shoulder the burden of escorting his king’s spirit into the otherworld. Granted, Elesin does ultimately stagger and fall under the weight of that burden; if Death and the King’s Horseman is to have any weight of its own, though, we’ve got to believe from the outset that he’s capable of carrying it.

At least the design elements work together pretty stylishly at the Clark Street Playhouse—the lights (by Ayun Fedorcha) are expressive, the color-splashed sets (by Misha Kachman) suggest the richness and vibrancy of West African textiles, and the costumes (by Genevieve Williams) are striking, not least Jane’s masquerade-ball getups, which turn out to be a horrifically inappropriate set of confiscated ritual clothing. And though the recorded drums that underscore most of the evening could use a little fine-tuning, the black-and-white ballroom footage Vreeke projects so vastly behind the colonials’ Act 2 soiree is an inspired touch.

Most satisfyingly for anyone intrigued enough by the play’s ambition to return after intermission, the second act gathers momentum until it takes on a satisfyingly Greekish inexorability. Once all the pieces are in place, once the audience understands how seriously the Yoruba world has been destabilized, it’s clear what it’ll take to set it back on its axis, and the horror mounts as steadily as the event’s inexorable approach. If Vreeke had found a way to make the first half feel anywhere near as compelling, he’d have had a scorcher of an evening.CP