Stories from the Mall sound a bit prosaic, as if the Westgate massacre of a year ago was little more than a well-told story or two or three. They could be fiction or fable, not hard-hitting facts about the bloodiest atrocity to hit Kenya since the post-election violence of 2007-2008.
In fact, the so-called ‘stories’ assembled by theatre producer and actor Mugambi Nthiga are not ‘hard-hitting facts’. They are an exceptional collection of evocative poems and prose, enhanced by a series of powerful black and white drawings meant to convey the same emotions reflected in the selected ‘stories’ and drawn by Justin Ogada.
This deeply moving multimedia memorial was staged last weekend at the Michael Joseph Centre with six of Nairobi’s most polished professional actors giving a powerfully poignant performance, accompanied by well selected songs by the lovely Patricia Kihoro and her gifted guitarist Toby Tinashe.
Devised by Mugambi and produced by The Gladwell Theatre (which is based in Boston, USA), Stories from the Mall premiered at this year’s Storymoja Festival.
So did Arjun Kohil’s Westgate Memorial video project which was screened at the MJ Centre as a prelude to the theatrical tribute that featured a combination of heartfelt texts composed by Wambui Mwangi, Ogutu Muraya, Aleya Kassam, Yafesi Musoke, Wambui Wamae-Kamiru, Teju Cole and Stephen Derwent Partington among others.
Staged in a style reminiscent of Sitawa Namwalie’s delicately dramatised poetry (as in Silence is a Woman and Cut off my Tongue) as well as Robin Denault’s Love by Shakespeare, Stories’ cast members stood stoically in a straight line on an open stage with leather-bound scripts in hand.
In turns, they shared lines that were at once intimate, insightful, emotive and often spine-tingling in their ability to evoke feelings experienced by those most profoundly affected by the Mall massacre.
Of the six, Mumbi Kaigwa, Aleya Kassam and Mkamzee Mwatela each have had experience in the script-holding style, which was evident by the ease with which they didn’t allow the written word to get in the way of their passionate albeit immobile performances.
Yet their presence didn’t overshadow the compelling readings by Julisa Rowe, Brian Ogolla or Mugambi Nthiga who was actually the most demonstrative of the six dramatists.
But Stories as a stage production wouldn’t have had any impact without the texts that Mugambi assembled, starting with Dr Wambui Mwangi’s Lamentation of Mourners which he found tucked away on Wambui’s online blog. After that, he was convinced he could find more Kenyan poets whose works he could include in his memorial project.
And so he did, after which he directed his ensemble which sometimes performed as the six in unison. At other times they came forward as either a trio, duet or simply as a soloist, as if in a choral formation.
The back story of what actually happened at Westgate came from the Nigerian novelist Teju Cole whose essay analysed the gruesome events that hit home at the Storymoja Festival when the revered Ghanaian poet, professor and diplomat Kofi Awonoor was murdered in the mayhem at the Mall.
But the raw emotions, deeply personal and profound reflections were eloquently scripted by the Kenyan poets whose depth of insight combined with the rich resonance of the actors’ poetic voices and subtle but salient gestures consistently gave me goose bumps and often left me choked up with emotions I had not anticipated.
Ultimately, what made Stories from the Mall feel transcendent and deeply meaningful was its ability not simply to mourn and memorialise the dead but also to reveal the exquisite artistry that can result when the poets become the soulful spokesmen and spokeswomen of the Kenyan people.
Meanwhile, Friday evening at Phoenix Players, Harry Ebale directs his adaptation of the marvellous Dario Fo script which Ebale entitles Accidental Death of a Terrorist. The show opens a week late after complications arose among the cast, but those were settled such that the cast now includes Samson Psenjen, Martin Kigondu, Sahil Gada, Esther Muturi, Yusuf Anyanza and Harry Ebale playing the maniac!.
This audacious political comedy will only run through October 19, so I suggest theatre buffs had better book a seat in advance.
At Alliance Francaise, opening October 18th and running through the weekend is Festival of Creative Arts’ psychological murder thriller entitled Revenge which producer Eliud Abuto suggested should be an adults-only show.
Immediately following FCA, Heartstrings Kenya will bring back How I Dearly Hate You due to popular demand. It will run from October 21 through 28 at Alliance Francaise.
Finally, Checkmate Mido will perform Hero: Ololosokuan III, a spoken word concert, accompanied by the Yellow Light Machine at Goethe Institut next Friday, October 17th at 6:30pm.