Art

‘Simba Bazenga’: Lion King roars in sheng

SimbaBazenga

PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

margarettawagacheru_img

Summary

  • On a scale of one to 10, the senior students from KCA University nearly scored a jackpot with their premiere performance of Simba Bazenga: A Musical Play at Kenya National Theatre this past week.
  • They get high marks for everything from choreography, costuming, and sensitive acting to lighting, set design, and set changes which were swift and inconspicuous.
  • The only thing that dropped the bar a bit (but didn’t undercut my view that KCAU just produced the best musical theatre work of 2021, hands down) was that delicate mix of technology and live theatre.

On a scale of one to 10, the senior students from KCA University nearly scored a jackpot with their premiere performance of Simba Bazenga: A Musical Play at Kenya National Theatre this past week.

They get high marks for everything from choreography, costuming, and sensitive acting to lighting, set design, and set changes which were swift and inconspicuous.

The only thing that dropped the bar a bit (but didn’t undercut my view that KCAU just produced the best musical theatre work of 2021, hands down) was that delicate mix of technology and live theatre.

“The software let us down,” says the show’s director, Ogutu Muraye who also lectures in KCAU’s Department of Arts, Film, Media, and Economic Studies.

“It’s the reason we were a half hour late in starting,” he adds. Yet he didn’t need to explain the delay since school students were still streaming into KNT during those moments in any case.

It was Muraye’s choice to risk a glitch just so his students could get a taste of current theatrical trends which definitely include mixing live performance with digital technology.

But by creating theatrical backdrops with beautiful images projected from a computer, the outcome was bound to be dicey.

It mostly worked well (apart from a couple of brief glitches) at the Friday matinee, creating moods most relevant to the tale that turned out to be a radical, indigenised adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King, workshopped and scripted by Silas Temba[ms1] .

“We’d prefer to say the show was inspired by The Lion King, but you could see the many differences,” Muraye told the Weekender when we met after the show. In fact, Simba Bazenga was a brilliant modification of the original tale, starting with replacing English with Sheng and Swahili.

The show is still about family, identity, and responsibility. It’s also about power, betrayal, jealousy, and justice. But the fact that it’s set in urban Nairobi, not on some idyllic African savannah, makes the whole story come alive with urban sights and sounds.

Musically, the show is again a mix of many of the Lion King classics like The Circle of Life. But the score was also revised and indigenized by Rodgers Ng’inja who picked up another classic, Hakuna Matata only to transform it into a reggae romp.

The song has different connotations now. It marks the moment when the young prince Simba, (played charmingly by Sandra Chadota) stops grieving and feeling guilty about his father’s death.

He essentially turns his back on his destiny and identity, and takes a mindless, ‘don’t care’ attitude towards his life.

That’s exactly what his uncle Scar (Emmanuel Barasa) wanted him to do. Having been instrumental in his brother’s death, uncle then went on to convince Simba he was responsible for his father’s demise, and had better flee for his life, which he does.

That left the field open for Scar to claim he is now heir to the throne. Jealousy had enflamed his cruel scheme to dethrone his stately brother. It got him the title and time enough to bring devastation to the Pride Lands and mourning to people who felt the double loss of both father and son.

Simba would have been lost in the wilderness forever if it hadn’t been for Rafiki (Kulola Kitatu) the female shaman, who serves as a sort of narrator. She stumbles upon Simba (now played by Mikal Otieno), reminds him of his role and responsibility to his people. She compels him to come home and reclaim what is rightfully his.

The only problem is that Simba has spent years living in shame, trying to crowd out the feeling he was responsible for the death of his dad. He comes home, only to be reckoned a coward by his best friend Nala (Sharon Chelang’at) who rejects the ‘don’t care’ man that he’d become.

It is her strong rejection that finally wakes him up to regain his courage of conviction and join the struggle to retrieve the Pride Lands and his place as the legitimate leader of his people.

Simba Bazenga was so professionally performed that one can hardly believe it was a final students’ assignment in Muraye’s theatre arts class. But it’s all the better for illustrating the calibre of theatre that university students can create when they are tutored well.

Ogutu Muraye may be better known as an internationally acclaimed storyteller than a theatre arts teacher. KCAU is fortunate in having him on staff, and clearly his students are as well.