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Ngugi’s Play a Triumph for Freedom of Expression by MARGARETTA WA GACHERU PhD

“It was a reincarnation,” Margaret Mirii, wife of the deceased co-author of Ngaahika Ndeenda told Weekender on the opening night of the English translation of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s and Ngugi wa Mirii’s controversial play. Speaking from eye-witness experience, Mrs Mirii had been there in 1977 to see not only her husband’s revolutionary production but her mother’s performance as one of the village dancers in the show.

Last Thursday night’s marvellous opening was actually the world premiere of ‘I Will Marry When I Want’ since it had never been produced before. But the following Saturday, the original Kikuyu production was staged for the first time since it was banned. “We were committed to doing both versions back-to-back,” said Director Stuart Nash who is also founder-artistic director of Nairobi Performing Arts Studio.

 

The wisdom of his choice was illustrated moments before the show began with an audio endorsement of it by Ngugi wa Thiong’o himself who spoke from Irvine where he is Professor of Comparative Literature at University of California. Nash then spoke about the “elephant in the room”, the issue of why a Briton would produce this play. “We intend to stage a series of Kenyan plays. So, when a friend suggested this one, I was all for it,” he said.

The real issue now is whether it’s worth watching this 45-year-old play, which is definitely yes if you are a theatre lover. Yes, I will marry raises tonnes of contentious point about Kenyan society, which are unfortunately just as timely today as they were back then. Nonetheless, times have changed and ever since Caroline Elkins’ award winning book, Britain’s Gulag came out, some of the most brutal revelations about the torturous conditions that British colonials and their cruel home guards put Kenyans through is now common knowledge.

Now the stunning recollections of torture and exploitation shared by Kiguunda (Bilab Mwaura) and Gicaamba (Martin Kigondu) can no longer be the basis for what led to the play’s banning after thousands had seen the show at Kamiriithu in 1977. It’s the post-colonial story of Kiguumba, Wangeci (Nice Githinji), and their daughter Gathoni (Anne Stella) that makes I will marry still feel fresh and timely. And what makes the play so profound is that the protagonists are peasants and workers, whose voices we rarely hear revealing their struggles and survival strategies.

What’s so beautiful about both the English and Kikuyu versions of the show is that either way, you can’t miss the humour, wit, and wisdom as well as the reality of Kenyan society in which the home guards reaped the spoils of Independence while those who fought for it did not. What is equally amazing is that the show has marvellous live music, beautifully painted backdrops, well-choreographed flashbacks, and superb acting by Kenyan professionals.

What’s most compelling about the play is the dynamic interactions first between Kiguunda and his wife Wangechi, who await the mysterious arrival of Kiguunda’s stingy boss Kioi (Martin Githinji) who’s coming to see him at his humble home. She expects it’s about their title deed which Kiguunda values above all else. But then she decides it’s about an anticipated marriage between Gathoni and their son John. Sadly, she’s got it all wrong.

Then, when Gicaamba shows up, he shares truths about the exploitative system that he and his people are being strangled by. (That’s the stuff the powers-that-be didn’t want the public to hear). The scene gets wildly uncomfortable when Kioi, his snobbish wife (Angel Waruinge) and another couple from church finally arrive. Their mission apparently is to convert the family. Their real goal is to grab Kiguunda’s land.

Their plan is almost scuttled by Kioi’s friend Ngugire telling all about how he, as a former home guard, gained his riches, his land, and salvation as ‘gifts from God’ not as rewards for torturing and killing his fellow Kenyans in service to his coloniser boss. The play reveals a deep class analysis translated into an impassioned drama that ultimately leads to Kiguunda’s and Nice’s total disillusionment with his boss and despair for having lost his land in the name of religion.

They should have listened to warnings from their friends, that the rich marry the rich, never the poor. They should have never imagined their daughter’s relationship with the boss’s son would end well. Which it did not. In the end, I will marry has a militant yet magnificent finale, one that will leave you relieved, upbeat, and hopeful that social change is still a real possibility.

About the author: MARGARETTA WA GACHERU PhD

Margaretta wa Gacheru has been writing about the arts in Kenya for many decades, starting at Hilary Ng’weno’s Weekly Review and Nairobi Times. Holding a PhD in Sociology from Loyola University Chicago in the US and master’s degrees from University of Nairobi in Literature and Northwestern University in Journalism as well as from Loyola and National Louis University in Education, Chicago. Author of ‘The Transformation of Contemporary Kenyan Art (1960-2010), she has been writing for BD Life magazine since early 2012.

End of Term Concert Review by Lucy Karaya

Music is therapeutic, it remains at the core of our lives. It is such a powerful force in our lives. The Kenya Conservatoire of Music brought the music aesthetics to the Kenya National Theatre through their End of Term Concert. The concert was both a celebration for students who have advanced in their music careers as well as a demonstration of the ongoing music education and talents of their students. It featured the Prelude Orchestra, the Conservatoire students, and Ensembles.

The director of Kenya Conservatoire of Music, Ms. Wandiri Karimi, kept the audience enticed as she introduced the artists on stage. Every note of the music played touched and hit with emotion. Different genres of music were played from classical, and jazz to pop music. Their selection was topnotch, the solos from Wambui Njoroge who sang God Help the Outcasts from the Hunchback Notre Dame; Ilaria Fatori who sang On my Own from Les Miserables to Eric Mwenda who sang Bring Him Home from Les Miserables were so deep; you could have smiled more than you would think simply because of the nice dynamics of the songs.

The pianists rejuvenated the audience with every key sparking an emotion. They allowed the audience to not only listen to the music but to also feel it. Their choice of music included; Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring –J.S. Back; Passacaglia-G.F. Handel, Arioso in G Major-J.S. Bach. The Winner Takes It All; I Giorni-Ludovico Einaudi, Moon Beams- Barbara Arens, Salute d’ Amour- Edward Elgar; and Opening Night Jazz. Guitarists were not left out. They gave the audience a cathartic experience of playing a guitar. Amana Mundia played Adantion by F. Carulli and Tony Ndung’u played Cherry Wine by Hozier.

The most exciting part of the concert was the performance by the Prelude Orchestra. The set unfolded into a spectacular event as they performed Pizzacato Polka, Theme of Water Music, Spinnliedchen, Waltz No.2, A thousand Years, Cheerleader, and Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho. The audience was having the best time of their lives as they joined in, clapped, and danced to the performance. There was a lot of energy in the auditorium; it was hard to believe that the concert was coming to an end. The Prelude Orchestra had to perform ‘Cheerleader’ once more due to public demand, before the director officially closed the concert.  The Kenya Conservatoire of Music will have more concerts at the theatre. Some of these concerts include; Fret Venture Concert, Classics in Nairobi, Cellobration, Teachers Concert/Piano Concert, End of Term Concert, and Christmas Concert.  #twendetheatre #inspiringculturalconnections.

BRO CODE By Margaretta wa Gacheru PhD

 Unplugged and A Small Production Company’s drama ‘BroCode’ is one of those touching original tragi-comedy, marvelous Kenyan plays scripted and directed by Murage Lawrence and produced by Temko Lavindu and Tim King’oo of A Small Production Company and Unplugged respectively.

King’oo was also responsible for a simple but effective set design that instantly signaled the chaos that was about to unfold on the Kenya National Theatre stage.How two old sofas where the brothers were separately sleeping found their way to the place was a mystery. This two-hander was a slow-starter. You actually didn’t know when the show started since the two were ‘fast asleep’ long before Michael (Nyakundi Isaboke) screamed as if he’d either been awakened by a horrifying nightmare or actually witnessed a terrible real-life horror, like maybe seeing a man murdered right before his eyes.

As we learn as this suspenseful murder-mystery unfolds, Mike is haunted by fears that his own brother is a murderer, and he is an accomplice to the lethal crime by virtue of having been there when his brother Saddam (Xavier Ywayo) involved him in a bank heist gone bad.

It’s a terrifying experience for Mike who’s a law-and-order man who’s been following the rules since childhood. It’s enabled him to get through law school and eventually into a prestigious law practice. Meanwhile, his older brother Saddam isn’t bothered despite having shot a bank security guard who may have died.

It seems almost accidental that they are together now. The tension that kept them apart for 20 years permeates the whole atmosphere of the play.Through a series of short flash backs, role plays, and even physical spats, we learn about their past. It’s Saddam who left home at 16 and never got in touch with family until a few days before the present when he contacted his ‘bro’ and suggested a rendezvous.

Apparently Michael was all for it but he laments at how he foolishly followed Saddam when he suggested he accompany him on ‘an errand’, wear a mask, and then go and rob a bank.As the play unfolds it turns out that Saddam had committed multiple crimes in the past, but never a murder before. Mike is already unnerved by his brother. He’d grown up, having been physically and psychologically bullied and tortured by Saddam. But he seriously wants to know if he’s an accomplice to a murder or not.

The play takes a dramatic turn when Mike learns that the security guard his brother shot is okay, instead of that palpable pressure that their past had generated between them, they suddenly remember their dad, a man they both adored. That mutual affection breaks out into music, rapping, and dance which is cathartic.

The harmony and joy of them performing songs and dances they both know makes for a break-through moment. It also reveals the two actors as all-round entertainers who can sing and dance just as well, maybe even better than they can act. Their acting can be described as phenomenal, especially when Mike has to decide if he’s going to make the break, leave Saddam at the warehouse, and try going back to his former professional life. In fact, he goes, and Saddam picks up the gun he’d used to almost kill the guard. Suicide seems like an option. But then, Mike comes back in an emotional moment, as if to finally take control, like a good Samaritan, and save his brother’s life. This time, their reunion is authentic, affectionate, and full of love.

Simba Bazenga Review by Hilda Malowa

Synopsis: Set in urban Nairobi, Simba Bazenga is the story of family, identity, responsibility and power struggle. When Simba’s father is killed, Simba is led to believe that his father’s death is his fault and he is advised by his uncle to run away and never return. Simba’s uncle seizes power and with his already unhinged mind deteriorating, his home village experiences a devastating decline. To become Bazu and redeem his home village, Simba must navigate the tragic loss of his father, face his past and confront his uncle. Told with vibrant music, witty dialogue in sheng and charming choreography Simba Bazenga is a show that is at once familiar and also refreshing. 

Characters and Their Acting: Being part of the audience one thing an individual couldn’t fail to notice was the unique acting skills of the play cast. The acting was so good that one would think that it is actually real and could easily flow with the story based on their actions. Further they acted in a manner that they aroused emotions among members of the audience especially the ability of Mafisi being able to mimic the laughter of real hyenas. In regards to their dressing code their costumes and artist makeup fitted the genre perfectly especially when depicting the Bazu as well as the women lionesses. Pertaining to lighting of the scenes one can describe it as appreciable specifically in regard to the varying sound effects that described nature of the scenes. Additionally the actors were able to clearly articulate their lines and one could clearly hear the words they uttered without struggling.

Setting: The outstanding setting of the play could easily be noticed .This because it actually represents the life lived in the jungle as well as the changing time and seasons. The use of sheng language made it easy for the audience to understand and relate with the play however future use of sheng should be minimal so as to cater for all cadres of audience. Being a musical play the soloist Rafiki was audible and was to vary her pitch. With the production having been based on the movie, “Lion King” the flow of the play was coherent at the theater as it is on paper, and it was not easy to figure out what comes in the next scene, at the same time entertaining. The sheer talent of the artists on-and-off the stage was evident throughout the performance and were able to keep the audience desire to finish the story until Simab wa able to face his past, fight his uncle and become a Bazu.

Defending Democracy Review by Shauna Juma

Many times when individuals talk about democracy what clicks into one’s mind is the freedom of expression especially in regards to politics, criticizing government as well as having a choice in what you want to do. Over years Kenya has been able to achieve this especially with the coming of the 2010 constitution.

Being a week of democracy and with an aim of creating awareness on the matter especially among women and youth, the Forumciv Hub Eastern and Southern Africa collaboration with Wajibu Wetu, PAWA254, Siasa place, Creative Spills and Mkuru community justice center   organized a Democracy conference from 13th September 2021 to 17th September 2021 at  Kenya Cultural Centre Incorporating Kenya National Theatre giving an opportunity for their employees and support staff to learn and get more information about democratic rights and responsibilities including networking with persons championing the defending democracy.

Gracing the event was former Member of Parliament and advocate for social justice and democracy honorable Martha Karua who urged Kenyans to stand up and take part in the fight for democracy. Further she stated that democracy should be taken into practice to create spaces for youths to have their voices.

Also present in the conference was Mufasa Kibet a poet, actor and writer who urged fellow artists to continuously use their skills and talents in their art performances such as plays, spoken word, dance to advocate and champion for democracy. He challenged the media to provide viewership for the artists performances stating that art safeguards a long-term view, and not only does it provide a counterweight to the fast evolving world of technology but also helps to make sense today’s complex issues.

All in all, we should all strive to fight and champion for practices that promote and enhance democracy.

Bleeding Scars Stories za Kanairo Review by Hilda Malowa

Synopsis: These are series of stories in form of spoken word, music, comedy of families left behind in the urban slums of Kenya namely Kayole, Dandora, Kibera among others following loss of their loved ones to social injustices. The main objective of the series is to clear the negative image carried by the names kayole dandora kibera among other urban slums. Secondly it is to provide a platform to the youths in the urban slums hence keeping them busy from involving themselves in drug abuse and crime as well as to educate and entertain.

Presenters and their presentations: From the presentation of the stories one key element one cannot fail to notice is the great narration skills as well as flow of ideas. The presenters undoubtedly brought out the real situation of the happenings in the urban slum areas. One could easily figure out and flow with the stories especially in regards to spoken word, musical presentations based on their facial expression and how they conveyed emotions thus having a great connection with the audience. The presenters were also appropriately groomed however they did not fully portray the hustle and the life individuals in urban slums live. The lighting of the various presentations was noticeable especially there consistency with the varying sound effects that describe the nature of the presentation. In my opinion, the presenters’ diction was amazing and one could hear the words as pronounced by the presenters without struggling.

Setting: Looking at the presentations’ settings it clearly illustrated the social injustices being done in the urban slum areas especially in Nairobi. This made it easy for the audience to connect and practically imagine the life in the slum areas as well as the challenges those families are facing. The presenters were also able to keep the audience’s desire to finish the stories intact to the end of the show.