It was a Play Reading like no other. A story told by 10 actors seated before a house-full audience in the congested upstairs library of Goethe Institute.
It was also a performance that had never taken place before. That was because the ensemble assembled by director Esther Kamba had decided unanimously to do their first read-through of ‘Ruined’ without a prior rehearsal.
“It was agreed to keep it simple and spontaneous,” Esther tells BDLife, referring to the award-winning play by African American playwright Lynn Nottage.
And yet, when the time came last Friday night and the reading was about to begin, all ten quickly climbed into their respective characters and gave them ‘full-bodied’ life, using just their voices.
It began with Joe Kinyua becoming a kind of narrator, reading the playwright’s instructions to the cast.
Those instructions are normally internalized by a show’s director and cast members who are guided by the writer’s ideas.
Then, what an audience sees is a show in which the dialogue is blended with the director’s interpretation of everything else that transpires in the play.
But in a Play Reading, the audience gets to hear the dialogue but they are left to imagine what those words might translate into on a stage.
For instance, I saw the reading of ‘Ruined’ from a cinematic perspective. The actors got into their characters so well that I felt we were with them deep in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo during the height of a civil war between the State’s military forces and the rebel army.
The play itself is set within a brothel owned and operated by Mama Radi, who is played with a no-nonsense style of humanity by Caroline Odongo.
Her brothel is a neutral zone where members from all sides of any conflict can come to drink, eat, and fulfil their lusty desires with women employed and trained by Mama to do the job to her client’s satisfaction.
The play is filled with dark humour even as it reflects on the way women’s sexuality has been weaponized such that rape is a tool of torture and a means of destroying people.
DRC is the first country where rape and sexual assault were finally recognized as weapons of war, just as deadly as an AK47 or assault rifle.
The problem was so rampant in Congo that Nottage was commissioned by an American theatre company to write a play about it.
Goodman Theatre even sent her to East Africa where she met women who told her many terrible truths about the horrors of what was ruining the lives of women, girls, and the country as a whole.
The play that Nottage wrote won her countless awards. It also compelled Esther Kamba to secure the right to stage it here in Kenya.
The play reading was meant to test the waters to see how an audience would appreciate the script.
Turns out they loved it, and urged Kamba to perform it as a full production.
“But that will cost us more than we can afford just now,” Kamba confessed. The cost didn’t seem to quiet the audience who responded in the affirmative when one crew member asked if they would assist by supporting a future production.
The relationships in the play are raw and wonderful. There’s Christian (Arthur Sanya) who regularly brings Mama supplies, and who one day brings two young women to work in the brothel.
Sisters Selina (Eileen Bulungu) and Sophia (Agnes Kola) need a safe haven, and Christian knows that Mama can provide them with that.
But the Mama can’t be bothered. She is ultimately persuaded to accept them, but only Selina can serve the men fully.
Sophia had been so badly damaged sexually that her female organs had been ‘ruined’ for good.
Ironically, Sophia has the most exquisite soprano voice that unfortunately attracts bad men, including top-fighting men who threaten Mama who, by playing a shrewd diplomatic set of cards, gets Sophia and her place off the hook.
Meanwhile, Sophia is stealing cash from under Mama’s nose. And when Mama confronts her, Sophia confesses she has heard of an operation to repair her damaged parts.
Mama had planned to sack her, but in the end, there is a total turnaround.
There are other sub-plots in this dazzling play which nearly ends as a tragedy. But finally, there’s a fairy tale ending of the kind you only find in romantic novels like those of Mills and Boon.
Included in the cast were Caroline Odongo, Nyokabi Macharia, Joe Kinyua, Arthur Sanya Mururi, Mugambi Kihara, Esther Kola, Ileene Bulungu, Sundrez Malley, Victor Mwangi, and Steve Njau.