Art

Kenyan theatre scene blooms in pandemic

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The author of From weight to dust Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • It’s a pity that 2020 had to be so hard hit by the Covid-9 pandemic, especially as the year had started off so well.
  • There were productions by everyone from Dr Zippy Okoth, John Sibi-Okumu and Sitawa Namwalie in semi-solo performances.
  • There were also groups like Heartstrings Kenya and Dance Theatre Kenya staging shows that were well attended and assuring their audiences that they would be back later in the year with more quality productions.

It’s a pity that 2020 had to be so hard hit by the Covid-9 pandemic, especially as the year had started off so well. There were productions by everyone from Dr Zippy Okoth, John Sibi-Okumu and Sitawa Namwalie in semi-solo performances. There were also groups like Heartstrings Kenya and Dance Theatre Kenya staging shows that were well attended and assuring their audiences that they would be back later in the year with more quality productions. But that was not to be.

Instead, we got hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that doused all those dreams. We had been promised by Nairobi Performing Arts Studio (NPAS) that they were soon to bring us Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Ngai Hika Ndeeda (I’ll marry when I want) both in Kikuyu and English, but even that hope was quashed as thespians were not even allowed to rehearse, except for those who didn’t mind meeting online via zoom to share their craft.

And of course, Heartstrings Kenya which produced Good for Nothing’ with Bernice Nthenge, Paul Ogola, and Adelyne Wairimu as three of the many stars in the ensemble that never loses hope or energy under the direction of Sammy Mwangi. Yet even they were at loose ends like many theatre casts, crews and the theatre-loving public were.

The highpoint of the pre-pandemic year was February when many companies and individuals focused on love and the Valentine Day theme. For instance, that was when Dance Centre Kenya (DCK) staged Romeo and Juliet the ballet with the homecoming dancer Joel Kioko who returned to dance with his partner Annabel Shaw in the title roles. Kioko is a prodigy discovered by DCK’s Cooper Rust who supported and taught him as he ultimately reached the UK where he currently is a student at the English Ballet School. Theirs was a dazzling performance. But several other Kenyan soloists equally gave us a thrill when they staged singular performances.

Dr Zippy Okoth is one who performed her own autobiographical script, playing ‘Agatha’ (also Zippy’s middle name), a young woman who had smartened up since her precursor, the divorcee, shared all her woes from being married to an ungrateful, disrespectful, and ultimately violent man. Agatha even sang sweetly about her new-found freedom and that was a delight.

Sitawa Namwalie also told a marvelous story entitled “Taking My Father Home which was also scripted by the performer-poet who gave us Cut of My Tongue and Silence is A Woman in preceding years. Both she and Zippy were accompanied by subtle music that never drowned out their artful acting.

But despite the physical constraints on the theatre, many thespians found ways to keep themselves working and occupied with creative activities. Some put their focus on vocal performances. This was true of Maimouna Jallow who had been working with fellow writers and storytellers in years preceding 2020 so she was prepared to premiere the three-part Kenyan audio melodrama, An Accidental City. Maimouna scripted the story; she also directed and produced with her online Positively African. That is where the episodes can be found online.

Mumbi Kaigwa also found a poetic way to utilise her voice as she had been invited by the award-winning Kenyan author, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, to produce the audio version of Yvonne’s latest novel, The Dragonfly Sea. It was a rare opportunity because not enough Kenyan writers are creating audio versions of their texts. But Mumbi captures all the emotive inflections that are embroidered beautifully in the book.

Other groups have been involved in teaching in 2020. The most notable was NPAS since Stuart Nash organised with the Ministry of Sports, Art and Heritage to offer free online acting (with Fanuel Mulwa), singing (Hellen Mtawali) and producing (with Nash) classes initially mainly for Kenyan teens. One might imagine that kids having no school would jump at the chance. And they were, but so were older Kenyans. So Stuart ultimately opened the sessions to youth aged 12 to 25.

Finally, the most exciting production we actually see this year was Rhoda Ondeng’s Kenyan opera, Nyanga: Runaway Grandmother. Rhoda scripted, directed, and produced her brilliant and beautiful opera. She merits high marks for so doing.

And lastly, George Orido performed the impossible task of assembling his 2020 Sanaa Theatre Awards last Sunday night at Kenya National Theatre.