All- women playwrights tell Kenyan stories online


Karishma Bhagani, executive producer of the Nairobi Musical Theatre Initiative. POOL PHOTO

Thespians refusing to let their imaginations get lockdowned by the Covid-19 pandemic have come up with a whole new programme for taking their theatre transnational, cross-cultural and Kenyan all at the same time.

“It’s all about collaboration,” says the Mombasa-born Karishma Bhagani who’s at the centre of the new Kenyan edition of a set of micro-plays entitled Theatre for One: We are Here,

The series of six one-woman plays will be performed live online from September 15-27, on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The six Kenyan women playwright-performers [whose original plays will premiere on the 15th are Mumbi Kaigwa, Sitawa Nambalie, Aleya Kassam, Anne Moraa, Laura Ekumbo, and Mercy Mutisya.

The entire venture is the result of an ingenious collaboration ignited by Karishma and including a high-powered slew of award-winning Western thespians. They are Bill Bragin, executive artistic director of The Arts Centre at New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi who actually commissioned the six ten-minute plays for Christine Jones’ Theatre for One, the experimental theatre company that Ms Jones founded back in 2010. The venture is produced by Mara Isaacs, founder of Octopus Theatricals of New York, and assisted by Kenya’s own Rainmaker Limited and Nairobi Theatre Initiative, both of which were founded by Sheba Hirst and Eric Wainaina.

Karishma’s role in making the Nairobi edition of ‘Theatre for one’ become a reality has been, as Bill Bragin put it in a zoom press conference last week, “a matter of trust.”

Bragin, who came from the acclaimed Tisch School of the Arts at NYU to launch the university’s Arts Centre at Abu Dhabi, met the young Kenyan at a theatre conference just a year ago. But her enthusiasm for the theatre activities underway in Nairobi sparked his interest.

Karishma has been the executive producer for the Nairobi Theatre Initiative since 2019, which is how she’s so conversant with the artistic talents who are now in last minute rehearsals for their performances. She has also worked closely with Rainmaker since it was Eric Wainaina who she initially met and who suggested she come on board as airobi Theatre Initiative ’s executive producer.

At the time, Karishma was producing the Ugandan International Theatre Festival as well as completing her undergraduate studies at the Tisch School at NYU. But even then, she was keen to see Kenyan theatre transcend traditional boundaries and find transnational platforms on which to perform. Since then, she’s completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in theatre arts, and will soon be starting a doctoral programme in theatre at Stanford University.

Nonetheless, she’s been able to juggle her time and undying devotion to Kenyan thespians who she has successfully linked up with some of the most dynamic and daring theatre producer-directors in the States.

At their press conference, Christine Jones admitted she was initially skeptical about taking ‘Theatre for One’ online. But the pandemic compelled artists like her to re-imagine the way they do theatre. “We want our audiences to feel a part of our performances,” she said.

There is little doubt that the six women artists who’ve been commissioned to perform this month from Kenya are among our best.

Karishman had worked most closely with three of the six who have been actively involved in creating musical theatre with the NBO Initiative. Aleya Kassam, Anne Moraa, and Laura Ekumbo (the LAM Sisters) have been working closely with Eric and Sheba for several years. The three also worked actively with Sitawa Namwalie in Brazen, which was an original script re-examining Kenyan history from a feminist perspective. Mumbi Kaigwa is a veteran woman actor, playwright, and producer-director whose original productions have won her international acclaim. And Mercy Mutisya is a rising star on the local theatre, television and film scene.

Plus the six also work with dynamic women and men behind the scenes to perfect their performances. They include Nyokabi Macharia, Esther Kamba, the Damascus-born Kholoud Sawaf and the Yugoslavian-American director SRDA.

The original scripts they will be staging online are The Interview by Aleya Kassam, The Living Ghost by Mercy Mutisya, Aging by Laura Ekumbo, The Beanie by Mumbi Kaigwa, and Killer Cop Lives Fast Life by Sitawa Nambalie.

The scripts address a wide range of diverse topics. The challenge to the actors is large, especially as all their rehearsals have been online, just as their performances will be. Accompanying the commissions from The Arts Centre of NYU Abu Dhabi will be workshops aimed at strengthening the theatrical skills of all the Kenyan artists.