Dark backstreet stories that pass no judgment


The cast of Backstreet at Kenya Cultural Centre, April 30, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

Clare Wahome has been wearing many hats these days. The CEO of one of Nairobi’s finest theatre groups, Millaz Productions, is also an actress in her own right. She is currently in rehearsal to co-star with Ben Tekee in Fred Mbogo’s gripping drama, ‘The Dead need no Shoes’ which is coming to Kenya National Theatre on May 26.

Clare had also been rehearsing to play a leading role in Millaz’s ensemble production of Backstreets, which premiered this past weekend at the Kenya Cultural Centre.

Scripted by Emmanuel Chindla and Saumu Kombo who also directed the play, Clare played Sarah, a young lawyer in mourning with her friends over the tragic demise of her former lover, Justin (Ken Aswani). Their meeting ground is Kares bar where Sarah refuses drinks while her banker friend Ude (Terry Munyeria) chooses to drown her grief by drinking vodka as if it were water. She’s advised against her indulgence by Freddie (Francis Ouma) who we discover late in the play has been having a covert romantic rendezvous that he’s been keeping under wraps even among his bar friends.

This script is intriguing since it’s made up of interwoven stories that unfold gradually and are full of surprises.

They start with the opening moments when Freddie is alone calling out for his friend Sponge who never responds. Instead, we only hear an explosion which seems to foreshadow another bomb blast in the play.

Justin had supposedly died in an explosion in Somalia where he’d been stationed. But when Abdala (Allan Lumumba) shows up with eyes glazed in shock, only Sarah has the tender touch to draw him out of his trance. It isn’t long before everyone at Kares believes, like Abdala, that they’ve seen a ghost.

They’re all terrified when Justin walks into the bar. To them, he’s either a dead man walking or a ghost since all have been convinced by Justin’s dad that his son is dead. Once they believe that Justin never died, that yes, there had been a bomb blast in Mogadishu but another soldier died, not him, the plot thickens and the scene gets dark. You’d think there would be celebrations over Justin’s return, but instead, there’s melodrama as relationships unravel before our eyes.

For instance, there’s the relationship between Justin and Sarah that he’d hoped to revive after their five-year lapse; but that gets messy. Then there are the troubled relations between Justin and his dad (Robinson Mudavadi). They had never been close, but it’s the dad who has to tell him his mother (who Justin adored) died on the same day she heard her son was dead. Justin blames his dad for her death and other things.

Then there’s Ude who’s been drinking heavily and turns into a mean-spirited drunkard who attacks her former best friend Stella (Leila Tasha) for lots of petty things which are deeply hurtful to the girlfriend. But Ude doesn’t stop there. She attacks Abdala for his hypocrisy, claiming to be madly in love with his wife but having countless affairs. She also exposes delivery services.

And during those five years of Justin’s absence, he and Sarah got together. Sarah only tells Justin how she suffered in his absence. We might assume her revealed pregnancy was the result of her time with Justin. But then, after there’s a flashback and we find Sarah having a ‘backstreet’ abortion (graphically orchestrated on stage), we learn that Sarah has been with Freddie on intimate terms for who knows how long?!

To cut through the heaviness of all this emotive truth-telling, there’s an egg-man who arrives at Kares to sell his hard-boiled eggs and groundnuts.  

Finally, after exposing all the group’s dirty linen, they decide to reconcile, sit down together, drink and play cards.

But it’s Sarah who has the last word. She can’t drink booze ‘cause she’s pregnant again, this time it’s clear the paternity is Fred. But no hard feelings since they’re all friends again.

Backstreet tackles a number of touchy subjects, like backstreet abortions, alcoholism, war and its psychological effects on veterans like Justin. But the script-writers don’t pass judgment on anyone. They might be faulted for not taking a stand on any contentious topic, say abortion. But that’s not Millaz’s style.