Art

‘Black Out’ is timely, troubling but funny

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Tony and the rest of ‘Black Out’ cast at the Kenya National Theatre on Wednesday. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • The show elicited lots of laughter last weekend after audiences got so big the production had to shift from Ukumbi Mdogo to Kenya National Theatre.
  • Yet Xavier Nato’s script was never meant to be just a light-weight comedy.
  • Like Millaz’ previous plays, beyond the jokes and clever choreography of the cast, Black Out has a compelling moral message that cannot be easily ignored.

On its surface, Millaz Arts’ latest production, Black Out, looks like a jolly fun series of goofy jokes centered around a bunch of rambunctious university kids on a big bulky binge.

The show elicited lots of laughter last weekend after audiences got so big the production had to shift from Ukumbi Mdogo to Kenya National Theatre.

Yet Xavier Nato’s script was never meant to be just a light-weight comedy. Like Millaz’ previous plays, beyond the jokes and clever choreography of the cast, Black Out has a compelling moral message that cannot be easily ignored.

And as for the title, there wasn’t a single power outage leading to a ‘black out’ in the entire play, so why the naming? Because Millaz’s black out is a psychological (not electrical) condition as well as a metaphor. It’s also a topic not easily discussed with today’s youth.

Many are more inclined to value experimentation than getting lectures from adults on the dangers of doing things like booze, ‘bhangi’, and other intoxicants.

The title of the play is reflected in the opening moments when we see six college students ‘blacked out’ and sprawled all over Tony’s (Howard Lumumba) living room. The first one to waken (Brenda Gesare) heads straight to the bathroom. But in seconds she’s screaming, scrambling across the stage, and finally, fainting in fright. One by one, they wake up to see what’s the ruckus. All react similarly.

Apparently, somebody’s dead. But rather than call the cops, they all panic. Now it’s all about ‘who-dun-it?’ The show’s director Jackson Mudavadi (who also plays the foolish Cop Number 2) has his cast laughably act in semi-slapstick style as each one accuses the others of being the ‘murderer’.

Finally, they settle on the guy (Donwill Kidero) who delivered what they later learn was a ‘weed cake’. He also brought cocaine and other intoxicants that everyone had to try. Even the mkorino Caretaker’s daughter Wamaitha (Shirleen Kadilo) who the six soon realise is the one who is ‘dead’.

How they treat the dead daughter is dark comedy bordering on the macabre. Tony proposes taking the body and dismembering it, describing what actually happened recently to the Saudi journalist who was ‘disappeared’ after being turned literally into dog food.

But the youth are probably still high after a night of drinking, smoking, and indulging in other ‘recreational’ intoxicants, some of which are life-threatening or debilating at best. By now, all are involved in the cover-up, including the drug dealer Shikhuyu.

The mayhem hits stratospheric highs when two cops arrive at Tony’s flat. They have come because Tony had called them briefly before thinking better of it. But before they’re let in, the body is made to look ‘alive’ as Wamaitha is decked out sunglasses and a mask. Hiding her corpse is one of the funniest scenes in the show.

It also seems like Nato’s lampooning local cultures’ treatment of the dead.

As they investigate Tony’s place, Cop 2 munches leftovers from the night before and sprinkles cocaine on the snack. He quickly gets high, accelerating the hilarity with his imbecilic behaviour.

The two eventually leave, only to return, now intent on charging them all with murder. Yet what we soon learn is that Wamaitha ‘died’ in a way similar to Shakespeare’s Juliet, who blacked out for a time, but wakened moments after her Romeo committed suicide.

For a moment we imagine that will also be Tony’s fate. But instead, Nato employs several interesting devices to keep his audience on our toes. One is to inject several alternate reality scenes, like the ‘what if’ one where Tony calls the cops to confess he killed the caretaker’s girl.

Another is to flash back to the night before when we see how Wamaitha joins the drug-infused party and tries everything, including a poisonous alcohol that literally knocked her out.

The other device is the play’s ‘magic weapon’. It’s the rapper (Saumu Kombo) who arrives several times in the show, serving as a moral messenger to rap about the way indulging in decadent pursuits like boozing and drugs can lead you nowhere but to hopelessness.

The one disturbing moment towards the show’s end is Cop 2’s lethal treatment of the Caretaker (Ted Munene) and nobody getting upset about it. There’s a moral message even there. It is that drugs and guns can easily lead to impulsive actions, like killing for the heck of it.

Black Out has a genius way of mixing hilarity and horror to hammer a hard reminder home. Kudos to Nato, his cast, including the show’s director.