African Queen goes ‘On Trial for murder


The play On Trial at the Alliance Francaise, Nairobi was performed by Youth Theatre Kenya. PHOTO | POOL



  • 'On Trial', an interactive theatre production, was performed last weekend by Youth Theatre Kenya at Alliance Francaise.
  • It was initiated by filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone, the producers of the award-winning documentary, 'The Elephant Queen'
  • The script combines courtroom realism with the fantasy of actually charging this iconic creature with a crime that the audience is meant to adjudicate with a vote.

‘On Trial’ is an interactive theatre production staged by Youth Theatre Kenya and presented last weekend at Alliance Francaise.

It is also part of an outreach project initiated by the filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone who produced the award-winning documentary, The Elephant Queen which premiered in Kenya in early 2020. By then, the film had already won accolades in Toronto, London, at Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

But what concerned Debble and Stone was that Kenyans themselves receive the story of Athena, the elephant queen and matriarch who guided and guarded her large elephant family.

They also wanted children to learn more about their environment and about issues like the one addressed in On Trial, which is the conflict between animals and human beings. To that end, they worked with the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development and with artists to develop a 28-book series of children’s books to promote literacy and wildlife awareness among Kenyan youth.

They also worked with an Elephant Queen theatre team who devised three different scripts, each addressing a different age group and revolving around animal characters in the film.

On Trial is one of those three and focuses on the elephant queen herself, Athena. In sharp contrast to the role she plays in the film, which is that of the all-wise, compassionate, and heroic leader of her family (who in real life reside in Tsavo East National Park), Athena is now an alleged criminal and murderer.

The script combines courtroom realism with the fantasy of actually charging this iconic creature with a crime that we, the audience are meant to adjudicate with a vote that could determine Athena’s fate.

As we learned from the show’s director, Jazz Moll, at the end of On Trial, the outcome had been pre-determined, meaning the so-called vote had been rigged.

“We had tried following the people’s choice a couple of times, but in every instance, the vote was for her innocence,” admits Moll. “We felt there was more realism in the way we ended it.”

The charge against Athena (played by Rob Zenga) was simple. She had killed the four-year-old boy Efa Gadisa, and was now charged with his murder. It seems she had been with her young cub, foraging for food, when she arrived at the Gadisa farm.

The events that followed were contested, but apparently, the moment Efa’s father (Clinton Opondo) saw Athena, he pulled out his spear and was preparing the throw it at her cub. She charged the boy before the father could release his spear. So who was the aggressor? Him or her?

On stage, there was an actual courtroom scene where both counsels gave persuasive arguments, although one (Aketch Koffi) brought tear-jerking witnesses while the other (Kael Njihia) called a scientist (Martin Kigondu) and a character witness for Athena (Matilda Igathe) who is actually in the courtroom.

In the end, the cast, despite having devised several endings, depending on whether Athena was found innocent or guilty by the people, deemed her guilty.

But in the course of the questioning, one could see Edwin Gadisa was as responsible for threatening Athena as she was for attacking Gadisa’s son. The animal behavioralist laid out the fact that humans have infringed on elephant land, not vice versa. He also explained how family-oriented and gentle are most elephants, except when their offspring are threatened.

Otherwise, Athena as a matriarch of her family had an important role to play in educating, guiding, and protecting her people, especially the young and vulnerable.

The Maasai character witness went further to say that her people had coexisted for centuries with elephants and had few conflicts.

But in the end, it was as if the deck was stacked against Athena from the start.

On Trial’s interactive theatre kept us on our toes and eager to see the next interactive show that Youth Theatre Kenya will stage.