American classic adapts well to Kenyan context

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Brian Achola, Joe Kinyua, Nick Ndede and Maggie Karanja in the play ‘Fences’ at Phoenix Theatre. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU


  • Max (Kinyua) was born into poverty, having come from a home where his father walked out when he was very young. Upon leaving home at age 14, he couldn’t find work and so he resorted to petty crime and went to jail for a time.

To compare actors Joe Kinyua’s and Maggie Karanja’s performance at Phoenix Theatre in August Wilson’s award-winning play, Fences, with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis acting the same roles on a Broadway stage isn’t quite fair.

Nonetheless, the two top Kenyan actors did an outstanding job in this Tony-and Pulitzer-prize winning play. Fences is the sixth out of Wilson’s 10 plays focused on African-American life in the 20th century.

The 10 plays are often called The Pittsburg Cycle because nine of them take place in the playwright’s home town. Wilson’s ambition was to write plays that reflected everyday African-American life as it transitioned over the century, including his people’s joys and hardships.

His plays all tackle issues such as racial discrimination and poverty, topics that most American playwrights barely touch, making Wilson’s works some of the most important of his and our time.

Phoenix’s version of Fences is very different from the original one although the characters, basic plot line and troubling topics raised by Wilson are still addressed. But Tim Kintoo, who directed the play, must be applauded for adapting Wilson’s work so well to the Kenyan context.

The one bit of history that will require ignoring is that the original work was set in post-World War 2 1950s which of course wouldn’t be the same time frame for Kenya. Other than that, the play seems quite plausibly Kenyan as it addresses a family that’s got an authoritarian father, Max, compliant mom, Rose (up until one pivotal moment in the play) and two sons, each by a different woman.

Max (Kinyua) was born into poverty, having come from a home where his father walked out when he was very young. Upon leaving home at age 14, he couldn’t find work and so he resorted to petty crime and went to jail for a time.

A garbage collector

After getting out, he met Rose (Ms Karanja) and they’ve been married ever since. As an ex-con, the only job he could get is as a garbage collector, but as the play begins Max’s job is in the balance since he’s been outspoken at work over what he sees as racial discrimination by Asians who run the company.

His collector friend Jimmy (Nick Ndeda) admires Max for his courage, but he also warns him not to get close to one female workmate since he foresees it could jeopardise Max’s 18 year marriage to Rose.

Max is stubborn, having been hardened by life, and especially by the racial discrimination he’s endured both as a first-class sportsman and then in the workplace. He’s hostile towards both of his sons, becoming an impediment first to his older son Lyon (Brian Achola) who defied his father and became a professional musician and then to Cory (Bilal Mwaura), an outstanding footballer who Max refuses to allow to pursue a promising career.

There is frustration all around, except with Rose who’s warm, understanding and protective of her son and her marriage. But all that changes once Max comes home with startling news. Rose refuses to adapt to the new circumstances that Max presents to her. Their marriage is effectively over once she hears there’s another woman and she is with child. Max doesn’t live long after that.

But the play ends with a beautiful resolution and the message of the mother which ultimately is all about forgiveness, moving on, and love. This is one play I recommend that all theatre-lovers see. The Phoenix cast is outstanding, the set effective and those emotionally explosive moments, especially by Ms Karanja, are electrifying and feel deeply real.

The complexity of every character in Fences is realised by almost all our Kenyan cast. It may not quite compare to the Broadway version, but then, remember that production was based on the authentic African-American history and life experience.

Wilson’s play spoke to each of them directly. But I confess, I’ll have to check out YouTube’s videos of previous productions of Fences, one with Denzel, the other with James Earl Jones.

Meanwhile, Festival of Creative Arts opened last night at the Kenya National Theatre in Perfect Wedding 2 with Maina Olwenya and Wanjiku Mburu, among others, and Heartstrings opened the night before in the come-back performance of My Fish, My Choice at Alliance Francaise. All three plays will run through Sunday, September 11th .

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