Checkmate needs an extreme make-over

A scene from Footprints' "Checkmate" at Kenya Cultural Centre July 31, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Checkmate is a strategic term used in the game of chess to indicate the King’s being irredeemably cornered, attacked, and finished by any opponent of the King.

It can also be used as a metaphor to refer to anyone who is attacked and having no means of escape. In the case of Howard Lumumba’s play, ‘Checkmate’, the one getting checkmated is Kingston (Jarad Itaro) although we don’t know it until the end of the play.

And oh, how very long it took to get to that point.

Characters like Wambugu (Prince Yaya), the landlord who normally carries all the keys, and particularly one that opens the way out of the Black and White estate was excruciatingly slow in answering neighbors who wanted him to open that door.

In fact, he never had the nerve to tell them he didn’t have the key. But his beating around the bush got him tossed off the roof by Kingston. Nobody seemed to care, not even the cop who’d come to meet the area MP.

Wambugu wasn’t alone repeating his lines and dragging out stories until it got tedious. Getting to the point wasn’t something characters in Checkmate seemed willing to do. But one can’t really blame them.

We could also blame Howard Lumumba’s script or even his direction or both since he’s responsible for both. In fact, Checkmate is the perfect example of the peril one can get into when one person is both playwright and director of a play.

On the one hand, we’d like to congratulate the writer for giving us his or her script. On the other hand, when one person is both writer and director, the danger is that there will be no one to edit the writer and no one to critique the director.

So, if the text needs trimming or the action needs to be snappier or the dialogue more straightforward, none of that is likely to take place. Those were problems we saw in Checkmate.

A scene from Footprints' "Checkmate" at Kenya Cultural Centre July 31, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

It wasn’t a problem that most of the play took place as Kingston’s flashbacks. He’d been playing chess with his daughter Princess () and was explaining how it was important for her to have a backup –a plan B in her life. Otherwise, she might get into a fix as he did. Then he shifted into flashback.

We find ourselves in the Black and White slum where neighbors are bemoaning the state of affairs in Kenya today, especially the joblessness and high cost of living. When he arrives on the scene, he’s treated like a mad man because he is slightly crazy.

He has no money and his daughter requires school fees asap since she’s already two weeks late. We learn he might be one of the thieves who has been robbing grocery stores for food.

So, it’s no surprise to see him on the roof of the tallest building in the slum, preparing to jump to his suicide since it seems to be Kingston’s only way out of experiencing a checkmate on his life.

The neighbors all have their own preoccupations, but they come together to beg him not to jump. On the other hand, when Wambugu arrives up there with him, the neighbors are so angry that he won't open the one way out of the slum, it feels like they might be ready to lynch him if they had to chance.

What apparently saves Kingston from both suicide and going to jail is the area’s candidate for Member of Parliament who uses his situation as a propaganda tool and public relations trick. Kingston is treated like a charity case that she is helping.

It’s her way of illustrating to her constituents that she can do it for one or many at the same time. It’s meant to show that she cares for the poor and is prepared to go all the way to help them out.

But then we come back to the present and discover the MP never kept her promise to Kingston. He’s still stuck and unemployed. What is worse is that his wife plans to leave him and take Princess with her. So, in real-time, Kingston is stuck and about to get checkmated. And that’s how the story ends.

Talk about a weak ending. The whole cast of neighbors had already walked off stage. Now it’s Kingston’s turn. But wait, there are so many loose ends that never get resolved. What is clear is that ‘Checkmate’ needs an extreme make-over before it comes back on stage.

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