Brilliant Thing: Mugambi's refines his storytelling in interactive and spontaneous solo show

Thespian Mugambi Ngithe when he starred in 'Every Brilliant thing' on May 26, 2024 at Nairobi National Museum.

Photo credit: Margaretta wa Gacheru | Nation Media Group

Mugambi Nthige has performed Every Brilliant Thing three times in the past four years, and the BDLife has been there every time.

Ask why and I will tell you what an amazing, enlivening, and spontaneous artist he is. He’s multi-talented, being not just present in theatre as an actor but also, as a director, producer and scriptwriter. He has applied all those skills to filmmaking as well.

He might be best known to younger live audiences for his membership in the ‘improv’ team of ‘Because You Said So’ where their kind of comedy and humor are so fresh, unfiltered, transparent, and quirky that audiences’ laughter is normally nonstop at every show. They even get begged to come back and do encores ‘cause they are such fun to be with.

In Every Brilliant Thing, Mugambi shares similar qualities in this one-man show. The first one is that both shows are highly interactive and engaging, although I’d say Brilliant is even more interactive and spontaneous, and less of a solo show. That’s because he pulls into his orbiting performance individual audience members who have no idea, they will be called to join him on stage (an open-air circular amphitheatre stage).

Then he gives them lines to speak and characters to ‘become’--either a father, child psychologist or our protagonist’s girlfriend and future wife.

But amusement invariably breaks out as a new ‘cast member’ either can’t get their lines right or intentionally does the opposite of what Mugambi asks them to do, or because it’s such an absurd but playful moment, one can’t help but laugh at the bittersweetness of it all.

That was the moment when Mugambi’s character as a child had to grapple with adults like his dad could not explain the situation of his mom who had tried to commit suicide and when, having failed, continues to live under that shadow which the little boy could not understand. But what he does ‘get’ is that his mom is unhappy. So he made it his task to try to brighten her spirits and lift up her life.

That is when he began his list, the list that gave its name to the title of the play.

Number one was ice cream and ultimately, the list got up to one million and there, it finally stopped. But in between those numbers of items that made life special, (exciting, wonderful, fascinating, delicious, and every other positive thing you might imagine) Mugambi’s character’s life unfolded. His storytelling skills having become more refined, athletic, spontaneous, and joyful each time he’s staged this show.

This time, he felt especially relaxed, now having his director Julisa Rowe, and their ingenious sound-man, Bill Rowe, working to somehow blend spontaneity and synchronicity so that the musical soundtrack (of mainly jazz) came together exactly with the mood and Mugambi’s language. It was a remarkable feat.

What was also stunning about this production (of a script you might think I know by heart this third time round), was its sheer athleticism. Or at least the way Mugambi reinforced his involvement with his audience by promising to give them all a “high five”.

And then he proceeded to literally run all the way around five lengthy rows of seats backed with mainly young Kenyan men and women who seemed to eagerly await their turn, with their arms stretched high so he wouldn’t have to slow his running while passing them by. It was an impressive journey, and I can’t recall him doing it before.

Not to say, that maybe did; but nothing could have taken away from the ulululations that followed his getting to the ground floor and slapping the last person’s hand. He definitely had his admiring on-lookers appreciating how he did it all for them.

It was with this kind of infectious enthusiasm that Mugambi played his part. It was especially there when he informed us of how he asked his long-time girlfriend, Sam, to marry him. It was especially fun when, after he got her to get down on her knee so she could ask him to wed, but instead, she asked him to get down and do it for her.

His anonymous audience member was a clever “actor-comedian’ whose non-cooperation with Mugambi was a cheeky response, it confirmed that discussions of mental health and trauma need not be morbid or boring.

Theatre like this one effectively illustrate just how powerful and positive the stage can be in reducing stigma and raising the level of discussions of mental health to a life-affirming height.

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Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.