If one were to create a trajectory of the progressive state of Kenyan theatre from the country’s independence to date, one would have to insist on there being two autonomous streams of activity.
One would reflect the progress and development of the annual Schools and College Drama festival which, since the late 1970s when it was Kenyanised, with Wasambo Were becoming the first African in-charge, has only gone from strength to strength.
The festivals were rich with performances of original plays that imaginatively tackle hard social topics with alacrity, fresh enthusiasm, outstanding (and well-rehearsed) talent and enlightened thought that entertains at the same time as it encourages people to think deeply about the role the arts can play in bring positive change to society.
The second stream would reflect both amateur and professional theatre, first with European groups staging lots of popular West End (London) plays and lively musicals.
But then from the mid-70s, the Kenya National Theatre also was Kenyanised as Seth Adagala became the first African to be general manager of KNT.
Kenyan playwrights like Francis Imbuga, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo, Kenneth Watene and others were plentiful and FESTACE 77 took two of the country’s most important production to Lagos.
Imbuga’s Betrayal In the City and Ngugi and Micere’s Trial of Dedan Kimathi were staged side by side. Shows from all over the PanAfrican world and FESTAC signalled the start of an amazing renaissance in Kenyan theatre.
Unfortunately the quality of plays and productions has gone down since then, with glimmers of enlightening original scripts occasionally being written by today’s important playwrights like John Sibi-Okumu and Sitawa Namwalie.
It is a pity, given that we have a newly renovated Kenya National Theatre, but apparently the Kenya Government, especially the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Arts has abandoned KNT, not even providing funds to subsidize stage productions.
One assumes that must be why the rental fees for the Theatre have shot sky high in recent times, heedless of the financial challenges that the artists have in footing those bills.
What is even more tragic is the lack of professionalism that we find in current stage shows which either keep audiences waiting for almost one hour, as happened at Alliance Francaise last Saturday night when Heartstrings Entertainment was staging another one of their amusing comedies, “Men Hide, Women Find.”
Offering no apologises to their public who were waiting patiently all that time, the management of the show did not even seem to realise the public deserved to be informed of whatever technical or artistic issue caused the delay.
A similar lack of professionalism was more than apparent at Professional Centre where Phoenix Players were meant to open last Friday night but at the last minute called off the show.