Francis Imbuga will forever be revered as a brilliant university lecturer, actor, and playwright.
He was especially acclaimed for ‘Betrayal in the City’ which went, together with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s and Micere Mugo’s ‘Trial of Dedan Kimathi’, to FESTAC, the second Pan African Arts Festival in Lagos in 1977.
But after watching the premiere performance of ‘Betrayal’ last Thursday night at Kenya National Theatre, (the first time the play has been staged at KNT in over 45 years), I’m afraid I must fault Dr Imbuga (A man I knew and admired immensely) for one thing.
It is the flaw that many playwrights fall prey to, and that is not editing their work down to the bare essentials.
It’s a task that the show’s producer and director, Stuart Nash, promised to fix long before the end of the play’s run which will be on March 12.
Editing is required not only because the play was too long, running nearly three hours. It was also due to the fact that deeply moving scenes went on just a few minutes too long.
One instance of that was the powerful scene at the outset of the play when Jasper (Francis Ouma Faiz), the philosophy student, goes mad over the death of his brother who was murdered during a student demonstration.
His madness is meant to reflect the nation’s madness with its impulsive, acquisitive, and murderous ruler Boss (Raymond Ofula).
But it could’ve been shortened by several minutes. He could’ve also come on stage sooner. So could his parents who were sluggish at the outset.
The wailing of Jasper’s mother, Nina (Wakio Nzenge), could also have been shortened a bit, although again, her critical condition, especially after one son was brutally gunned down by police and the other was snatched and jailed for ‘disturbing the peace’ with his righteous rage, was easily understood.
And the strength of her performance cannot be minimized.
But even the scene where the civil servants, including Mr Tumbo (Dru Muthure), were busy feasting on food and not going straight to the flare-up between Mulili (Ibrahim Muchemi), Boss’s cousin and Kabito (Dominic Mutemi) could’ve been shortened.
Their fight led to Kabito’s comeuppance after Mulili told Boss a pack of lies to get a green light to bump Kabito off over a silly ego clash that could’ve easily been resolved.
Certainly, the set changes were swift. And while they were going on, there was a radio newscaster broadcasting timely news regarding the standoff between the State and the students.
What some may not know is that Imbuga’s play effectively mirrored what was happening in Kenya at the time.
Despite it technically being about the fictitious country called Kafira, it was NPAS, at the insistence of the cast, to shamelessly change Kafira back to Kenya to give the show more relevance as a reflection of the country’s recent past.
Besides, the circumstances today are relatively different from what they were in the 1970s when Imbuga scripted the show (although Kenya is still plagued by nepotism, corruption, and impunity).
President Moi was equivalent to Boss. And students, faculty, and anyone else who dared to challenge the status quo or demand social change were endangered with everything from torture in the bowels of Nyayo House, (as Mosese (Martin Kigondu), was or dealt with by other ruthless means.
Imbuga was brilliant in his subtle references to what was happening all around him, and Betrayal has stood the test of time. However, I look forward to seeing the show again after it is slightly revised.
For instance, the scene between Regina (Joan Wambui) and her brother Jasper could have been shortened to let Tumbo go straight into his conversation about the play, especially as the play-within-the-play served as a pivotal moment when guns got into prisoners’ hands and Jere (Bilal Mwaura) got to speak in terms that might well have mirrored the playwright’s own feelings towards violence, revenge, and peace.
I need not be a spoiler for those who will go see the show or haven’t read it yet.
But I will say Jasper played the most marvellous madman, even as his fatal deed inflicted on the most troublesome character in the play was inspired by an Old Testament adage, an eye for an eye.
I suspect that the director was shy about tampering with Imbuga’s text but he’s wiser now, and I look forward to seeing Betrayal a second time before the 12.