Media, absentee parents and work madness


Jeff Odhiambo as Boss with his daughter Lana, by Lucy Kirago in What Can't Kill you. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Among those who had seen Walter Sitati’s play What Can’t Kill You when it premiered in Nairobi back in 2018, there was a debate.

Would Igiza Players and Wreiner Mandu do justice to Walter’s play when it opened last weekend at Kenya Cultural Centre? Or would they let us down now that Sitati is out of town on sabbatical?

I’m grateful that, from my perspective, they did justice to Sitati’s script, apart from one caveat. The long lapses between scenes were unprofessional, especially as there were no significant changes in the set.

What made it worse is that Igiza had scheduled three performances on Sunday, assuming each show would take two hours, not three. This was unfair to audiences who had to endure the wait.

Other than that, the play itself was well cast, particularly the parts of Boitumelo the precocious child (Chantel Moraa), Boitumelo the cheeky adult (Vivian Nyawira), and Zuberi (Jeff Odhiambo), the Boss who ran ‘the Stinging Tongue’ magazine with a sarcastic and ‘stinging’ bite of his own.

Sitati is a keen observer of Kenyan society and his plays invariably have a moral message. In What Can’t kill You, he examines the ways that both mainstream and social media operate, although the play was written before the full impact of social media on the mainstream had been felt.

Nonetheless, Boss Zuberi is already struggling with the first signs of the diminishing readership of his magazine.

This is still a major issue among all the media houses: how to kindle interest among youth especially in reading tangible (not online) newspapers and magazines?

The competition for eyeballs is still a real phenomenon.

That is why the Boss is interviewing applicants, looking for good writers who can revive interest in his publication. But Zuberi is only a part-owner of Stinging Tongue.

The other one is Boitumelo’s mother, Yejide (Mary Kamanthe). It is through her that we meet her daughter who at eight years old is already a mini-‘terrorist’ with her rebellious ability to argue for her rights and against authority, be it her mother’s, her teacher’s, or even the school principal’s (Emmanuel Kyalo).

Boitumelo’s radical use of logic initially looks impressive and even cute. But her lack of humility is disturbing, and it doesn’t get better as she grows older.

This we discover when we meet her ten or fifteen years later. She is just as cheeky as ever. She hasn’t learned the lessons of humility and unselfishness.

The same is true of Lana (Lucy Kiragu), the Boss’s daughter. She too has missed a parental force who could lovingly guide her.

She comes looking for it from her dad, but he’s fed up with this child whom he sees as being irredeemably ungrateful.

Boitumelo, like Lana, has also been ‘spoiled’ by a busy parent who had neglected her daughter’s soulful need for self-discipline and a sense of direction and purpose in her life.

But there is a turning point in the play. It’s when there’s a confrontational moment between mother and daughter.

Yejide is blasting Boitumelo for failing to take responsibility for her life.

She gives this self-pitying rant about how she had struggled to ensure her child didn’t have to suffer the way she had.

It’s at this point that Boitumelo realises she had been brought up to be exactly who she is because her mom had wanted her never to suffer, to lift a finger, or to be anyone other than her proud and pretty child.

At that moment, Boitumelo finally admits she doesn’t want to be the magazine’s managing editor (a job her mama gave her.)

But she loves fashion and asks to work in that department. It’s the first time Boitumelo has ever expressed an interest in work.

After that, the dynamics between the mother and daughter change. What’s different is that they both seem to have gained a new level of self-awareness.

Now Yejide seems to have realized she had contributed to making her child into a mini-monster. She is now taking responsibility for her mistakes of child neglect and for not letting her child suffer her own battles.

A similar awakening takes place between Zuberi and his child. He, like Yejide, had finally listened to his daughter express herself.

He too had finally realised he’d been part of Lana’s problem. By chance, Zuberi stops off at Yejide’s house before heading home at 2 am.

Lana is there so the reconciliation between parent and child happens twice, meaning there’s fresh hope in the end for both families.

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