Last year, I was invited to contribute an article in The Theatre Year Book by the Japanese Center of International Theatre Institute (ITI), a performing arts-oriented organization under the umbrella of UNESCO. Here is an english version of what was published. Photo credits go to, Darlyne Komukomu, Virani Media, Sitawa Namwalie, JSO.
Omuwanga is fiddling through files behind the counter, fulfilling his eternal administrative duties. He is tallish and lean with a stern face that could slip into a frown. A sudden bellow of patriotic litany tears the silence making Omuwanga flinch and turn to see his colleague Gumali rise up from the ‘office’ desk as he cheekily continues singing. He pesters an irate Omuwanga to join him in singing the nostalgic patriotic song. The situation is saved by a worrisome youthful lady who pops into the ‘office’ to look for help. Soon she discovers that she is –as a matter of fact- dead; and is in a passage ‘office’ administered by deities. Omuwanga who is the god of light and goodness and Gumali the god of darkness and evil are meant to lead her to eternity. However, there is only one problem: she cannot remember her name. The gods are troubled as they cannot find her file and without it she cannot be led to eternity. This Kenyan woman had encountered psychological and physical abuse that eventually led to loss of her life and alas, the loss of her name as well.
This is the plot of Sitawa Namwali’s Room of Lost Names, a play which perfectly summarizes the Kenyan theater scene. Although Sitawa was clearly inspired by the story of Mercy Keino- a college girl who was allegedly killed after attending a party organized by a powerful Kenyan politician- the play also metaphorically depicts the current state of a blotchy Kenyan theatre due to the culmination of political interference that has inhibited a thriving popular theatre since the neo-colonial era. This has led many thespians and intellectuals to pose the question: Has Kenyan theatre been on its death bed for the last thirty years; and if so, why has it refused to die?
The provenance of the insidious misfortunes of Kenyan performing arts sector is in the history of the Kenya National Theatre. After the independence of Kenya from British rule in 1963, local intellectuals and performing artists applied pressure to the government to allow Kenyans to have more control of the Kenya Cultural Centre, incorporating the Kenya National Theatre which had been a white dominated affair from its opening in 1952. Thus a new board of directors with a black majority was appointed with Seth Adagala becoming the first Kenyan executive director in 1968. However the powers that be managed to penetrate the board and hence continued to control the KNT performance calendar.
Relentless intellectuals and theatre activists led by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi Wamiiri and Micere Mugo continued agitation against white theatre domination. As a result the seventies and early eighties record highest activity of a thriving theatre culture and engendered African/Indigenous literature. The movement inspired the rise and effectiveness of popular literary theatre. Most memorable was the University of Nairobi travelling theatre (later the Tamaduni National Theatre) that used local languages towards local audiences in their plight to radicalize theatre in Kenyan communities.
One of the inspired communities was a village in the outskirts of Nairobi called Kamirithu, which was created by the British as an “emergency village” to house Gikuyu peasants who had been uprooted from their homes in an attempt to cut the line of support to the Mau Mau freedom fighters. As prof. David Ker chronicles in, ‘African Popular Theatre’. In 1976, a group of peasants and workers formed the Kamirithu Community Education and Cultural Centre. Through one of their sub-committees, believed to have been run by illiterates, they built a syllabus for themselves based on problems of the village. Sympathetic radical intellectuals like Ngugi wa Mirii and his cousin Ngugi wa Thiong’o later joined the committee and were commissioned to develop a script based on the autobiographies of the newly literate peasants. That is when an extraordinary phenomenon occurred.
Villagers- some of whom had never once been inside a theatre- designed and constructed an open air theatre complete with a raised stage, roofed dressing-room, stores and an auditorium with a seating capacity of more than two thousand persons. Under a production team led by Gatonye wa Mugoiya, they experimented with matchsticks on the ground before building a small working model on which they based their final complex.
In other words, a village center whose majority were peasants, built a 2000-seater amphitheater! The play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will marry if I want to) ran for several weeks attracting not only a wider interest in the community but also national and international news media. The local government was unnerved by the popularity of this play and begun to frustrate the Kamirithu Movement by making it difficult for the group to get performance permits. The struggle culminated in Ngugi Wa Thiong’o arrest and detainment at Kamiti Maximum Prison.
The action succeeded in suppressing the spread of the Kamirithu movement but the spirit of the center itself was unbroken.
On his release from prison following the death of President Jomo Kenyatta, Ngugi wa Thiong’o returned to Kamirithu. The next play was based on Ngugi’s original piece ‘Maitu Njugira’ (Mother sing for me). It used formal narratives of a girl asking her mother to teach her old songs of 1930’s, about the struggle against British imperialism. As prof. David Kerr observes: the sub-committee had decided that the next play should avoid the dangerous material of contemporary story. Little did they realize that the regime in place was quite aware of the modern variants of imperialism that were strongly in place.
The play was never legally performed in Kenya as Kamirithu was denied a license to perform it. However, the group staged rehearsal at the Nairobi University theatre which caused stupendous excitement and drew crowds that the current shows can only dream of. It is recorded that there were such crowds that the Uhuru highways were blocked each afternoon. Rehearsals begun at 6.30 pm but by 3pm all the seats were already occupied; people sat on the stage, in the wings, on the stairs and even in the light and sound rooms. The corridors and stairways were crowded and those who could not get inside sat on the grass outside and listened through open doors and windows.
This however was a short lived experience and a past glory that present thespians have failed to re-live. The government felt that intellectuals were using theatre to incite the masses and quickly flexed its muscles. The Kamirithu amphitheater was razed to ashes and erased from the memory of the immediate generation. Great thespians and activists of the time ended up getting jailed or seeking exile to save their lives. It was at this point that Professors Micere Mugo and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o among other activists left for exile.
Protest theatre was actively discouraged and theatre arts in general dismissed as a non-productive profession to the public. This made parents skeptical about their children pursuing arts careers and artists given a pariah status in the Kenyan society. The censorship board at the infamous Nyayo house building (where government torture chambers were discovered) frustrated artists as they frequently banned shows on opening nights or even in the middle of a running. It is reported that the officials of the censors often knew little about literature and drama and hence personal ignorance dictated the literary palates of Kenya. This went on until the late 1990 when Miujiza Players obtained a court order declaring that no one could stop artists from staging a show. However the damage had already been done and the equivocal audience had found ‘better things to do’. As a result, thespians still struggle to fill up seats to date.
However other forms of theatre continued to flourish and sustain the performance sector. Keep in mind that Kenya is an ethnically diverse culture with many communities having ritual theatre routed deeply in their traditions. It was therefore inevitable that Kenyans would still maintain a desire to use the theatre spaces already built by white settlers during the colonial era.
Despite the exit (or retirement) of European actors and promoters; plus a white audience diminution in the 1990’s, the youthful Kenyan thespians continued to promote staging of original African performances. Such plays survived self-funding, insufficient rehearsal periods, low audience turn out and constant fear of potential political interference. Even though their aim was not wholly political in comparison to the Ngugi Wa Thiong’o-Kamirithu era, these new generation thespians argued that theatre was a more satiable and effective media if they were empowered to tell their own stories. As easy as it may sound, this has been a difficult idea to promote mainly due to the colonial hangover in our modern cultural lifestyle and scarce resources. Never the less, 2015 exhibited a renewed zeal to fulfill this exigent dream.
Dr. Zipporah Okoth’s TIGO, forthrightly displayed a candid desire by sixth generation Kenyan thespians to tell their own stories. The play was staged at the Phoenix Players, a small theatre space at the heart of Nairobi city center and also the oldest repertoire theatre in Kenya. TIGO is a musical drama and a contemporary adaption of African mythology on the Nilotic migration from Sudan. This is a story about three brothers Labong’o, Nyikal, and Bor who get into a conflict because of childhood rivalry that has grown into their adulthood. Dr. Zipora clearly wanted to explore the relevance of traditional values to the current lifestyle. As a result, she used both traditional songs and contemporary (mostly) Kenyan cover songs. The dances also had a mix of popular traditional dances like Kalapapla and modern afro-pop dance routines.
As if to remind this enthusiastic generation of our current woes relating to freedom of expression, Rwanda‘s Amizero Kompagnie staged RADIO PLAY at Story Moja Hay Festival and at art activism space PAWA 254. Radio Play is a dark comedy written by Elizabeth Senja Spackman and is about censorship on the radio. It talks about the unsaid stories of people’s lives and the secrets we each hold and how they affect us. The Nairobi version included two Kenyan actors– Sitawa Namwalie and Mugambi Nthiga– who joined original cast members Hervé Kimenyi and Elizabeth Senja Spackman. They later staged the play in Addis Ababa at the culturally-hued Crossing Boundaries Theatre and Conference Festival.
Another political play staged was KAGGIA by John Sibi Okumu which was back by public demand after its run in 2014. It’s an autobiographic play about a Kenyan freedom fighter and anti-corruption hero Bildad Kaggia (1921-2005).
In KAGGIA, John Sibi-Okumu continues to explore what he labels ‘The Kenyan Condition’ and in this particular instance, the playwright is exercised by the themes of romantic and patriotic love.
The historical sweep of the play covers the period between 1921 and 2014, the year in which it was written. Two young filmmakers, Stacey and Xan, seek to resuscitate the lives of Bildad Kaggia and his wife Wambui as they consider possible scenarios for a film anchored on their personal lives. The most powerful scene was the meeting between Kaggia (Played by Harry Ebale) and president Jomo Kenyatta ( played by Bruce Makau).We see two powerful men meet face to face and stand their (ideological) ground despite one living in a state palace and the other in a slum. Unfortunately the enchanting actor, Harry Ebale, died of medical condition towards the end of the year leaving a forlorn theatre fraternity.
However, the opening of the renovated Kenya National Theatre was the most symbolic event of the year. Professors Micere Mugo and Ngugi Wathiong’o, who had been persecuted and forced to exile in the seventies under the watch of the first president Jomo Kenyatta, had now been invited as guests of the state and shared the platform with Jomo’s son, President Uhuru Kenyatta. Could this signify a realization to the state that literature and theatrical expression are indeed significant medium of social reflection and intellectual discourse that can actually help the government in its ‘Vision 2030’ development agenda? Only time will tell.
Aroji Otieno is a performing artist and writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.