At the district officer Simon Pilkings's home, Pilkings and his wife, Jane, are tangoing through their living room, dressed in egungun costumes. As they dance, a native policeman, Amusa, comes to the door and peeks in the window. At first he looks confused, but then he looks horrified, leaps backward, and knocks over a flowerpot. While Jane turns off the music, Pilkings goes to the door and finds Amusa, stammering and pointing at the costumes. Pilkings isn't sure what's wrong with Amusa, but when Amusa also points with horror at Jane, she suggests that their costumes are upsetting him. Pilkings and Jane take off their masks, and Jane remarks that they've shocked Amusa's "big pagan heart." Pilkings insists that Amusa is a Muslim and shouldn't be shocked, but Amusa insists that the egungun costumes are for the cult of the dead, not living humans.
While no one indicates how long it's been since Amusa converted to Islam, it's clearly not been so long that Amusa has forgotten that the egungun are powerful and revered costumes in Yoruba society. This suggests British colonialism is failing at its goal of stamping out the local culture and belief systems and replacing them with culture and religion more palatable to European colonizers. The colonizers have great political power over the native people, but they cannot entirely control their thoughts and beliefs. Jane's comment that Amusa still has a "pagan heart" shows that she's derisive of the local culture just like her husband (and despite being more understanding than he is).
Pilkings is very disappointed by Amusa's explanation and says that he didn't think Amusa believed in any "mumbo-jumbo." Amusa continues to ask Pilkings to take off the costume, but Pilkings stubbornly insists that Amusa state why he came to see him. He also shares that he and Jane believe that they'll win first prize at their costume party later with their costumes. Jane realizes that Amusa is serious and encourages Pilkings to be careful, but Pilkings reminds Amusa that he's a police officer and might face consequences if he doesn't follow orders and state his business. Amusa says that he came to discuss a matter of death, and he can't speak about death to a "person in uniform of death." He remains silent, even when Pilkings yells at him.
Remember that the egungun are extremely important to the Yoruba religion—they're how the living communicate with the spirits of their ancestors. By wearing these important costumes to a costume party, Pilkings shows the natives that he doesn't care at all about the local belief systems and indeed, thinks that they're something that he can use to get ahead in his own life. In other words, this is just one way that Pilkings is profiting from the people he's oppressing here. And not only is this exploitative, but it’s also extremely disrespectful.
Jane tries to reason with Amusa and points out that he helped arrest the egungun cult leaders in town. She asks why he's only worried about this now. Amusa explains that he arrested the people who were making trouble, but he didn't touch the egungun and must treat the egungun with respect. Annoyed, Pilkings says that there's nothing to be done when the natives get this way. He doesn’t want to miss the costume ball, so he gives Amusa some paper to write his report and goes into the bedroom to get ready. After Jane and Pilkings are out of the room, Amusa begins to write. He listens to the drums coming from the town and almost calls for Pilkings, but decides to just leave his note and go.
Amusa's willingness to defy Pilkings and refuse to look at the egungun shows that he prioritizes these spiritual beliefs and customs over his duty to the British Crown, which he serves as a policeman under Pilkings. Differentiating between the beliefs and the people practicing them shows that while Amusa is a one-dimensional character in Pilkings's eyes, he sees the world in a nuanced way and must navigate divided loyalties.
After Amusa leaves, Pilkings emerges, reads his note, and immediately calls for Jane. The note reads that tonight, Elesin plans to "commit death" per native custom, which is a criminal offense. Pilkings and Jane reason that this must be a ritual murder, and Pilkings laments that it seems like the native customs keep emerging, even when they think they've put a stop to most of them. Jane asks if they'll skip the ball because of this, but Pilkings says he'll just have Elesin arrested.
It's telling that Pilkings and Jane jump immediately to murder rather than suicide. This speaks to the way that they think about death within the context of their Christian religion and English culture. For them, death is something to be avoided at all cost, and not something that someone would accept willingly. Suicide is unthinkable to them, while murder is conceivable if horrendous.
Pilkings thinks that this may just be an unfounded rumor, but Jane points out that Amusa is usually pretty reliable. Pilkings says that Amusa is acting strange, though and seemed oddly scared earlier. With a laugh, Jane imitates Amusa's refusal to speak to Pilkings in the egungun costume. Pilkings decides to send the houseboy, Joseph, to the police station with instructions. Jane suggests that they talk to Elesin first to make sure that this is actually something to worry about, and Pilkings snaps at her. Then he apologizes and admits that the drumming in town is making him nervous. Pilkings wonders if the drums have anything to do with the "situation," and thinks that he hasn't heard drums that sound like this before.
Pilkings's observation that he hasn't heard the drums like this before indicates that as separate and distant from the natives as Pilkings would like to be, he's actually rather tuned into life in Nigeria. This reminds the reader that if Pilkings were to choose, he could be understanding and actually helpful, at least within the limits of the inherently harmful colonialist framework in which he exists. Instead, making fun of Amusa and referring to this as a "situation" shows Pilkings placing himself in a state of authority and deciding that the native culture must be suppressed.
Joseph knocks and Pilkings calls him in. Pilkings confirms that Joseph is a Christian and isn't bothered by the egungun costumes, and then asks what's going on in town. Joseph says that Elesin is going to kill himself, and explains to Jane that this is the law and custom: the king died a month ago and will be buried tonight, and Elesin must die to follow him to heaven. Pilkings sighs that he must be destined to clash with Elesin more than any other native. Three or four years ago, Pilkings helped get Elesin's son, Olunde, to England to study medicine. Elesin wanted Olunde to stay for some tradition Pilkings wasn't aware of, and Pilkings snuck Olunde onto a boat to get him out. Jane and Pilkings talk about how Olunde was intelligent, sensitive, and will make a great doctor.
When Joseph is able to share what's going on in town, it again shows that converting to another religion doesn't rob the native Nigerians of the memories of their past. Though Joseph doesn't react poorly to the egungun, note that he also doesn't seem to react at all or give any emotional response when he tells them that Elesin will kill himself. This suggests that though he's a Christian in some ways, Joseph still adheres to his native culture's beliefs surrounding death, and he doesn't see the suicide as an objectively awful thing.
Jane asks Pilkings and Joseph whether Olunde was Elesin's oldest son. Joseph says that Olunde was, and because of that, Olunde isn't supposed to leave. Jane confirms that the role of the horseman is passed down through family lines to the oldest son, and reasons that this is why Elesin didn't want Olunde to go. Pilkings says that knowing this, he's even happier that he got Olunde out, and he wonders if Olunde knew about the custom. They decide that Olunde didn't, but say that he was a private person. Pilkings says that the natives will talk about anything. Jane notes that they might talk, but don't talk about anything important. Pilkings declares that they’re "devious bastards."
Jane seems to be more understanding and more in tune with the native culture than her husband is. Pilkings wonders whether or not Olunde knew about the custom that would make him the next horseman, never considering that Olunde might not have a problem with fulfilling this role. In his frustration, Pilkings lets his real feelings about the native population slip out.
Joseph stiffly excuses himself. Jane reprimands Pilkings, as "bastard" isn't just a swear word here—it's extremely offensive. Pilkings is unconcerned and says that with "elastic families," there aren't actually any bastards. The volume of the drumming increases, and Jane restlessly wonders if it's connected to the ritual. Pilkings shouts for Joseph to return and asks what the drumming is about. When Joseph says he doesn't know, Pilkings exasperatedly points out that two years of being a Christian and engaging with "holy water nonsense" isn't enough to erase "tribal memory." This shocks Joseph, and Jane takes over questioning. Joseph explains that he's honestly not sure what the drumming is about, since it sounds like a great chief is dying and then like a great chief is getting married. Annoyed, Pilkings sends Joseph back to the kitchen.
Again, Jane acts as an interpreter of the local sensibilities for Pilkings. However, Pilkings's dismissiveness of her suggests that he doesn't much care to listen to anyone he thinks is beneath him, including his wife. Calling holy water nonsense shows that Pilkings isn't just being rude about Yoruba religion—for him, all religion is silly and doesn't hold much sway for him. He's mostly interested in Christianity as a way of controlling and “Westernizing” the native population, not because of any real religious devotion.
Once Joseph is gone, Jane implores Pilkings to understand that insulting holy water in front of Joseph is like insulting the Virgin Mary in front of a Catholic. She believes that Joseph might resign over this, but Pilkings says he's more concerned about Elesin's death. Jane says she'll change and make supper, since they clearly need to miss the ball in order to deal with the disturbance. Pilkings deems this nonsense, as this is the first event in over a year and it's a special occasion. He insists that he's not responsible for monitoring potential suicides, and it'll be a good thing when Elesin is gone. Jane laughs and says that once Pilkings is done shouting and being upset, he'll stop the suicide.
When Jane insists that they stay home from the ball to deal with this, it suggests that she may be more interested in promoting the larger goals of colonialism than her husband is. Pilkings wants to have a good time and enjoy practical pleasures, while Jane feels that it's important to do things by the letter. Jane's choice to reprimand Pilkings also begins to show that it’s possible to act as though every belief system has value and should be respected.
As Jane walks away to change, Pilkings shouts that he'll look extremely foolish if the drumming is just about a marriage and he interrupts Elesin on his honeymoon. He wonders what the native chiefs actually do on their honeymoons, scribbles something on a paper, and yells for Joseph. Joseph takes a minute, but appears in the doorway, looking sulky. He insists that he didn't hear Pilkings calling him. Pilkings tells Joseph to take the note to Amusa at the police station. As Joseph leaves, Pilkings grits his teeth and tells him that holy water isn't really nonsense.
While wondering what a traditional Yoruba honeymoon entails isn't entirely off base, given that traditions vary throughout the world, the way that Pilkings phrases this allows him to think that the Yoruba are so different as to be less than human. This turn means that he's able to think that their lives and their customs matter less than his.
Jane calls Pilkings for supper and asks how Joseph reacted when he said that the holy water isn't nonsense. Pilkings says it doesn't matter, though he's somewhat concerned that the local reverend is going to complain about the way that Pilkings talks about religion to the local converts. He tells Jane to put supper away and says that they can still go to the ball. Pilkings explains that that he's told Amusa to arrest Elesin and lock him up in his study, where nobody will dare start a fuss. As Jane leaves to put her costume back on, Pilkings tells her that he has a surprise for her: the prince is touring the colonies and will be at the ball. Jane is thrilled and says that luckily with her costume, she won't need to find gloves.
Pilkings only apologized about the holy water comment because he was worried what other colonists would think, not because he really feels bad about insulting Joseph’s new faith. Given the way that the play conceptualizes duty on both sides of the cultural spectrum, it's likely that Pilkings's attempt to have the best of both worlds by arresting Elesin and going to the ball won't work out well for him. He's not fully committing to either, and is only trying to arrest Elesin at all because he knows it'd get him in trouble if he didn't do anything about it. He also suggests that the natives respect him enough to not try to break into his house, which is potentially an overestimation of the power he holds.