It was refreshing to see how much production can be improved and radically transformed in a single week.
It was as if by magic Betrayal in the City, staged over the last two weekends at Kenya National Theatre, went from being a slow-going play that was over three hours long to become a lively satire on the city in the 1980s during the darkest days of Daniel arap Moi.
Imbuga was amazing in his ability to craft a script that subtlety satirised everyone, from the students, civil servants, and sycophants to the politicians, prison guards, and demigods like Boss (Raymond Ofula).
But the show’s producers, Nairobi Performing Arts Studio (NPAS) also deserve some credit.
They managed to do it in part because the show had such a brilliant cast whose members could easily adapt to the thorough-going changes introduced at the eleventh hour.
What changed was everything from the play taking off more quickly with Jusper’s parents (Wakio Nzenge and Omondi Ngota) already at the grave site of their student activist son Adike rather than lumbering in while weeping and wailing.
Also changed were the extended mad rants of everyone from Jusper (Francis Ouma Faiz) to Mulili (Ibrahim Muchemi) and the crazy prison askari (Fish Chege).
All of them played brilliant crazies in their own way, but each of them carried on the first weekend just slightly too long.
The trick for producer-director Stuart Nash was to figure out how not to diminish the passion expressed so powerfully by his cast while keeping it within a tighter time frame.
The first one whose performance gained qualitatively from the changes introduced was Wakio given her character, Jusper’s mother, Nina, deserved to grieve.
Her son had been shot by cops after their having been given the green light to shoot students on sight.
What was worse was the way they’d desecrated his grave which meant it was unfit for the ceremony meant to appease the ancestors.
Then, when she heard Jusper had also been jailed for shooting one of Boss’s hitmen, she is overwhelmed. Finally, she manages to temper the wailing while retaining her passion.
The man responsible for her grief, Mulili, also gave a brilliant performance. But his crazy way of flaunting his power (he being a cousin to Boss) was just cruel and malicious.
He embodied an arbitrary Idi Amin style of bumping people off that led eventually to justifying Jusper’s final act in the play.
It was Mulili who was responsible (with Boss) for not only killing students but also Jusper’s parents and sister Regina (Joan Wangui).
But even Mulili’s drunken rants had to be trimmed. Unfortunately, there was one explosive fight that broke out between Mulili and his fellow civil servant Kabito (Dominic Mutembi) which led to Kabito’s sudden demise and serves as an illustration of the kind of heinous power (packed with self-serving lies) that Mulili used with Boss to the detriment of the Kenyan people.
Then the prison guard that Fish played was another small man who had a green light on cruelty that compelled him to treat prisoners like scum.
But he was another one who required a trim in time. Yet he played such a comedic caricature on the night I watched last weekend that the audience loved him for his amusing mockery of the real guy.
Then, once those changes were in place the pace of the play picked up, and it was much easier to see that Betrayal wasn’t only about madness and how it had become a silent pandemic during the dark days of Moi. It was also about power.
In the last scene we see that in the end, Imbuga’s message remains ambiguous when it comes to politics and the means of making changes in Kenyan society.
However, he prefers non-violence over the coup d’etats that Jusper might have wanted. But that ambiguity is diminished somewhat in the last scene when Jere (Bilal Mwaura) and Mosese (Martin Kigondu) propose a Gandhi-style approach to dealing with Boss.
They are two of the prisoners locked up by Boss. Yet they are also actors in the play Betrayal in the City which Jusper has been lucid enough to write and good enough to stage before the head of state, during a dress rehearsal he attends.
Imbuga’s message remains elusive up to the end when Jusper is finally given a gun by Mosese, and a gunshot can be heard. Mulili receives a fatal bullet and Jusper gets his revenge in the end.