As far as ratings go, this year’s Storymoja Festival had to rank among the best as far as the art of storytelling goes.
They had outstanding Kenyan storytellers performing, including Dr Mshai Mwangola-Githongo, Mueni Lundi, Aghan Odero and Storymoja’s founder-author Muthoni Garland.
The festival also featured Ugandan poets Peter Kagayi and Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa in a storytelling sort of ‘dialogue’.
Their styles were radically different as Philippa both sang and read from her moving memoir Flame and Song while Peter’s powerful poetry (drawn from his new collection, The Headline that Morning) was raw with rage over political travesties recurring from an earlier age of dictatorship when men like Idi Amin made life miserable for Ugandans.
There were even Zimbabwean storyteller-actors who flew in especially for the Festival and to perform both solo shows and the ensemble production by Silvia Cassini, A Man Like You.
In fact, three out of the four members of Silvia’s cast staged solo storytelling. Kevin Hanssen, Mike Kudakwashe and Davina Leonard all told stories, only taking very different approaches to the craft.
Kevin Hanssen performed as Charles Dickens, the renowned 19th century novelist who took his writings on tour around Great Britain and the US, performing them just as Kevin did last Wednesday night.
Dressed just as Dickens might have done, the Zimbabwean dramatised portions of A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol as well as an abridged form of Dickens, short story, The Signalman.
What made Kevin’s performance so memorable (and mesmerizing) was the way he got into the skin of several characters in all three stories, transforming his shape, vocal style, body language and sentiment to suit every man or ghost that he became.
In contrast, Mike’s stories took the form of stand-up comedy. Transcending this culturally sensitive performance form, Mike had clearly mastered the method of telling true stories to which locals can relate. He tapped into topics like traffic, married life and that tabooed topic, sex. Keeping all his stories light, his style of physical comedy made his show Embrace the Madness a happy way to end the festival.
Just before he came on, Davina Leonard also got many characters involved in her solo story, initially told from the perspective of an innocent seven-year old girl who wanted to help her suicidal mum by creating a list of ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ that she could imagine.
Her list didn’t cure her mum, but it got Davina’s audience involved to the point where the actress easily enlisted ad hoc actors to spontaneously become either her dad, fiancé, shrink or vet. In the process, the little girl’s life story unfolds, offering life lessons for how one can cope with hard-core issues like suicide, death, depression and a road to recovery. Surprisingly, Davina kept her storytelling light and ebullient despite the difficult topics explored in her play.
All three actors, together with Amwoma Mbogo, took on very different characters once they got into A Man like You. Kevin became a kidnapped British diplomat, Davina his miserable long-suffering wife, Mike and Amwoma both Somali kidnappers with complex motives for grabbing the British envoy.
The story got shortened for Storymoja and the play’s next venue, the World Cultural Festival in Hong Kong. The shortening reduced its story’s suspense a bit, but it also brought greater clarity to the ending and the sacrifice the Briton had to make to foil the bad guys’ plan and save countless lives in the process.
The only disappointment in the festival was the unannounced cancellation of Sitawa Namwalie’s play Room of Lost Names. Otherwise, Storymoja did a fine job this year, including not only storytelling and poetry reading, but also dance, the visual arts, film, book launches and political conversations.
Meanwhile, Heartstrings Entertainment is staging Return to Sender, an original comedy throughout this weekend at Alliance Francaise.
Also this weekend, Martin Kigondu’s Prevail Arts Company will stage What Happens in the night at La Rustique Restaurant on Sunday at 3pm. Next Saturday at 5pm, Prevail will again perform Martin’s original script at Daystar University Valley Road. The cast includes Chichi Seii, Nick Ndeda and others.
Finally, tomorrow during the Somali Heritage Festival (which opened yesterday and runs through Sunday), Prevail Arts will also stage another original play by Martin Kigondu, Match Stick Man at Kenya National Theatre from 2pm. It’s a two-hander with Bilal Mwaura and Emmanuel Mulili. Produced by Brenda Muthoni formerly with Phoenix Theatre, the play’s also directed by Martin.