Mental illness is such a scary, stigmatised, and emotionally fraught subject that society finds multiple ways to avoid addressing it head-on. Instead, they speak of mental health or use words like wellness, rather than talk in plain terms about issues as common as depression, loneliness, anxiety, panic, and the dark possibilities of suicide.
Shalini Bhalla-Lucas was not scared to lift the subject out of the shadows into the light of day by producing under the name Just Jhoom? Kenya, The Manic Monologues, a theatre performance staged last weekend at the 11th floor Western Heights stage in Nairobi's Westlands.
It is a script first devised in the US by Zack Burton and Elisa Hofmeister. But it was adapted by an awesome team of actors assembled by Mugambi Nthiga who included three Kenyans’ stories. The team included Charles, Elsaphan, Julia Rowe, Nick Ndeda, Nyokabi Macharia, Vikash Parrni, and Wakio Mzenge. And the stories they added brought to a total of 19 short monologues only now the issue is mental illness.
Tackling so many tabooed topics in a single go, one could have felt emotionally shell-shocked at the end of the play. But the stories were compelling, amplifying issues that had to hit home for many who watched eight of Kenya’s most sensitive and versatile actors dramatise real-life experiences. These included everything from alcoholism, suicide, and schizophrenia (now called bipolar disorder) to drug addiction, paranoia, and the tragic consequences of not addressing these alienating mental issues.
Starting off with a scene of ‘crazies’ running wildly on and off an undecorated stage, they are shouting mean, stereotypical terms for mentally illness, everything from crazy, nuts, insane, and unhinged to weak, psycho, lunatic, and wacko. It’s the first sign this show aims to rouse awareness of this sensitive subject.
Then the stories begin to flow. The three by the Kenyans are most impactful for me, perhaps since they are each speaking from the soul so directly. For instance, Elsaphan Njora tells his own story about how he lost his ‘Dear Sister’ to suicide. We don’t know beforehand that he was telling his own story. But we could feel the close connection that he had with the one who died.
We also didn’t know that Charles Ouda was the one who was told over and over again that he was “so lucky” to be going to America, when what he experienced there was anything but lucky. It was filled with loneliness, penury, racism, and other unpleasantries which eventually led to his return home where he’s already proved himself to be a theatrical force, most recently seen in The Cheater’s Guide staged with Nice Githinji.
Vikart Pattni did not write his story on alcoholism. Another Kenyan did. But he performed the Hell on Wheels decline into despair with a sense of in-depth knowledge of that feeling. One couldn’t help feeling the profound importance of freeing addicts from their mental chains, be they drug or booze related.
But perhaps the stories about suicide were the most excruciating to watch. Wakio Mzenge’s attempted suicide in Almost 17 was devastating when after trying to commit suicide herself, she failed but her child did not. Her sense of guilt was overwhelming. The possibility of her being able to forgive herself looked unlikely. In real life, it probably wouldn’t take place without serious conscious raising, which is the kind of thing Bhalla-Lucas aims to do. It’s also why she sought out Mugambi, the acclaimed actor-director, in the first place. She realised that art and social awareness can go hand in hand in the effort to break through stigma and liberate society from its ignorance.
That was the point made most clearly in the final story, My Father’s Legacy, performed by Julisa Rowe. In it, she speaks about stigma and ignorance being dangerous frames of mind that need to be addressed by anyone wanting to heal mental illness and achieve true wellness.