The Sixth Kenya International Theatre Festival (KITFEST) was jam-packed with a rich array of performances this year.
The 12-day festival which just ended Sunday, November 14 featured everything from musicals, stand-up comics, spoken-word poets, straight plays, radio plays, plays on video, environmental plays, and an unforgettable one-woman show that laid bare the issue of sexual abuse which comes in multiple forms.
The performers came from all over the world. Thespians from 12 countries were scheduled to perform. But when only ten were represented, Kitfest founder-organiser Kevin Kimani did his best to ensure there was no gap in theatrical activity throughout the festival.
So, when the Egyptians couldn’t come, the Senegalese group stepped in to restage their original work, D’Ou tu vas? about the struggles of migrants.
That worked out well since the Senegalese company’s director Berengere Brooks was already running directing and acting workshops for Kenyatta University students when she was asked to fill in. The second staging of the play ensured more students would see her provocative production.
Then when the Indian company couldn’t make it, Youth Theatre Kenya stepped in to perform their environmental play, The Trial of Athena’. Based on concern for the conflict between humans and wildlife, the play was part of the outreach initiative of those who had made the film, The Elephant Queen.
The other company that couldn’t make it was the South African Intokozo Theatre Productions. Fortunately, the astonishing South African actress Kekeletso Matlabe was able to arrive and give a powerful one-woman performance, Chronicles of a Whore.
Otherwise, there were several countries that sent video plays, some more successful than others. Of the four, the US contribution, Water by the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music was the most polished and politically compelling.
The Chinese video was also professionally done and was part of the Chinese Theme Night that included heaps of free delicious Chinese food.
Unfortunately, the Ugandan and Cameroon video plays confirmed the notion that live theatre rarely comes out well when filmed.
In contrast, the radio play, Calls of the Hummingbird was a beautiful piece based on the parable that the late Nobel laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai often told about the hummingbird’s patience, persistence, and enduring commitment to save the planet, however, small its efforts.
This year, the Festival made space to focus on up-and-coming Kenyan thespians, both students and free-lance artists. There were shows staged by more established Kenyan companies, like Millaz Production’s Black Out and Journal of Orino’s Men of Ambition.
But there were also performances by winning plays from both the Colleges and the Schools Drama Festival. The most impressive of these was from Nanyuki High School where the school’s principal, Oliver Minishi, also happens to be a prolific playwright and director. His two plays were among the most impressive productions of the fete, cautionary tales that felt deeply relevant.
Numerous universities also brought either plays or dance performances to Kitfest. They included everyone from the universities of Kenyatta, Eldoret, Masinde Muliru, Jaramogi Odinga, Meru, and Multimedia to the Technical University of Kenya.
The most exciting university production was KCAU’s Simba Bazenga directed by Ogutu Muraya and based on the award-winning musical, The Lion King, only translated into Sheng.
Then on the last day of the festival, the original play entitled Audacity was staged by Tellerscope Entertainment, an ad hoc team of Kenyatta University actors who attended a slew of theatre workshops run by experts every day of the festival.
Workshopping was new to Kitfest this year, but as an experiment, 15 young people learned about everything from acting, directing, set design and stage management to lighting, sound, and how to ‘commercialise’ their productions.
The end result of the workshops was the production of Olwal Dickens’ powerful play, Audacity, about a family caught up in a web of betrayals, including sexual abuse, and power games. Considering the cast had only two weeks to rehearse simultaneously with their attending daily workshops, their performance was impressive.
But three other performances presented on the last day were also among the best of Kitfest. They were a repeat of Men of Ambition, a short play by Masinde Muliro University and a DoDo dance from Jaramogo Oginga University
Finally, Kitfest came out with its own Journal of African Theatre which Kevin Kimani hopes will become a leading voice, reflecting scholarly commentaries on African theatre.
“Such a journal is long overdue, so we’re glad Kitfest could bring out the first issue,” says Kimani, who was recently appointed Principle Creative Director for Production at Kenya National Theatre.