Millaz Theatre Company explores timely mental health issues

Millaz Theatre Company cast on stage.

Photo credit: File | Pool

Millaz Theatre Company is one of the most successful community theatre troupes in Nairobi.

That is why, when they understood that May was Mental Health Month, the company’s playwright in residence, Saumu Combo, volunteered to script a play entitled Backstreet Edition 2, filled with issues relevant to the theme so they could stage it last weekend at Kenya Cultural Centre (since the National Theatre is still under renovation) under the direction of Faiz Ouma.

It was helpful to know that this was probably the reason we were seeing so much crazy behaviour on stage. Initially, the show began joyfully as a team of friends are portrayed as small children dancing and chasing each other playfully. We watched them grow up, so we soon saw them as teenagers going through emotional ups and downs, and in the case of Freddie (Tony Kosa) being unfortunately transformed into a violent and angry dirty fighter who in the heat of the moment punches their friend Spongy (Mbeche) so hard that he dies.

By the time police officers arrive on the scene, they find Justin (Mugambi Ikiara) holding the body and so it’s assumed that he is the one who killed Spongie. For some reason, probably loyalty to his friend, he takes the rap and gets charged with murder. Before he has time to tell his friends, his father (Samuel Baraza) insists he go join the army. It’s either that or jail, dad says.

So against his wishes, Justin follows his father’s insistence and leaves without knowing that the night before, he’d impregnated his girlfriend Sarah (Red Brenda) who’d eventually abort since the father was a no-show and she wasn’t prepared to go it alone. But we learn all this later on. Up to now, we haven’t seen too much crazy stuff, apart from the booze-related death of one of the friends.

What is crazy is the hot-tempered, frenetic conduct of Freddie, who allows Justin to be charged with the crime that he’d committed. In contrast to his amoral conduct in the face of the loss of their friend’s life is the grief that Sarah clearly feels for the disappearance of her lover and the announcement that Justin had died.

Grief is another mental health issue that requires much sensitivity, patience, and time in which to heal emotions that have been traumatised by the loss of Spongy’s life.

In Backstreet 2, Sarah isn’t alone. Even Abdallah (Gaitan) grieves but his situation is different. He grieves over his own sense of personal shortcomings. He is infertile, and both he and his wife want children. She now is refusing to sleep with him since she’s told him in effect that his sperm is useless since it’s empty of the stuff required to give her a child.

Next thing we know, Abdallah is pulling off his belt and knotting it so as to hang himself. Suicidal thoughts are ones that need to be addressed and cast out, something scores of Kenyan youth haven’t yet learned. In fact, we see how friends can defuse such negative thoughts with humor and shock. In Backstreet 2, they team up and automatically pretend to help him hang. Yet at the last minute, both he and they reject the noose. It all becomes a joke, showing that humor can save a life.

Several more crazy situations relate to Justin’s return and initially being seen as a satanic ghost, not the real guy. Collectively, they run from him in fear, looking silly more than mentally sick. Eventually, he and Sarah get together in a passionate embrace that leads to a giant light-backed sheet silhouette sex scene in which the passionate embrace extends into a theatrical orgasm, which leads to her having an abortion, over which she will probably also grieve in future.

Ultimately, the final mental challenges come first from Justin in relations to his dad who had brow-beaten him all his life. He’d always been intimidated by him in the past, but no more.

The other issue comes from Ude (Leila Tasha), the boozer who finally stands up and accuses them all of neglecting her needs. She had been among them from the start, ever prepared to comfort and affirm them, but she’d never had similar feelings reciprocated. Thus, the booze became the substitute for real affection.

Her remarks, chastising the whole team for their neglect of others’ feelings led to a resounding expression of gratitude, extending to their audience, crew and fellow cast members, as the show ended on a high note there.

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