Art

Ngugi’s classic returns to stage after 45 years

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Author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • Ngaahika Ndeenda was written by two academics, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii who collaborated with members of that community to both create the stage and refine their script.
  • It was misunderstood by some Kenyans who claimed the two Ngugi’s were being ‘tribalists’.
  • The fact that thousands of Kenyans flocked to Kamiirithu to watch a show that mirrored so many facets of their own lives, threatened the powers that be.

There were performing arts in Kenya long before the British coloniser came and claimed, as the Donovan Maule Theatre did, that it was bringing the best of London’s West End theatre to the deepest of dark Africa.

Long before a National Theatre was established in 1952, there were Kenyan people performing orature (oral rather than written literature) in the form of storytelling, singing of original songs or those handed down from generation to generation, and even dancing in ceremonies marking events like harvests and weddings and the births of treasured offspring.

But a number of communities were stripped of those traditions once the new religion, Christianity, came in and deemed most of those indigenous traditions ‘bestial’ or ‘primitive’ or even ‘sinful’.

It wasn’t until 1977 that people in Central Province had the opportunity to watch an original play in their language and in a theatre that the local people of Kamiirithu had constructed themselves.

Ngaahika Ndeenda was written by two academics, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii who collaborated with members of that community to both create the stage and refine their script to make it most relevant to the lives of local people.

The play was a smash hit, attracting people from all over the countryside. It was misunderstood by some Kenyans who claimed the two Ngugi’s were being ‘tribalists’.

But what critics didn’t understand was that the play was meant to inspire Kenyans in every community, be they from the Lake, the Coast, or the far North to script their own plays and tell their own stories using their own mother tongues.

But the fact that thousands of Kenyans flocked to Kamiirithu to watch a show that mirrored so many facets of their own lives, threatened the powers that be. They had never seen such a grassroot respond to community theatre, and they felt threatened, sadly.

One Ngugi was detained. The other fled the country. But that play has never been forgotten. And on May 12th, the English version of Ngaahika Ndeenda, I will marry when I want, will be staged at Kenya National Theatre by Nairobi Performing Arts Studio.

The same cast will perform the Kikuyu version of the play; and the show’s director, Stuart Nash, hopes the public will come to see both versions of this modern classic.

It has a star-studded cast including Bilal Mwaura, Nice Githinji, Martin Githinji, Angel Waruinge, Martin Kigondu, Maryanne Nyambura, and Anne Stella. All are popular actors best known to those who watch cable stations or live theatre productions.

For instance, Bilal was last seen in Crime and Justice while Nice starred in Rafiki. Martin Githinji made his most indelible mark in Sue na Johnnie as did Anne Stella, while Martin Kigondu just staged the solo play, Supernova, which he scripted, produced, and directed, Angel starred as Miss Morgan in Tahidi High, and Maryanne is the backbone of Fanaka Arts.

There is also a massive cast of singers, dancers, and characters who play essential roles bringing vibrant life to this marvelous play.

Rehearsals for both Kikuyu and English versions of I’ll Marry When I Want are in full swing. Nash is a professional who has had decades of experience both producing and directing theatre as well as starring in it when he was abroad.

The former artistic director at KNT has already proven his worth by staging popular musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Sarafina, Grease, Annie, and Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Nash is also the founder and artistic director of NPAS which recognised the need of young Kenyans for professional training in the performing arts. Many of them have gone on to develop careers in theatre, television, film.

The story of Ngaahika Ndeenda is a delicate one. It is all about land and religion, hypocrisy and duplicity, class and the deep disparity between rich and poor in Kenya.

It has wonderful comedic elements to it, but it also tackles hard core issues that still have relevance today such misogyny, poverty, sexuality, and the role that religion has played and continued to play in Kenyan society.

It is said that Ngugi’s play has been staged in other parts of the world. But it’s been nearly 45 years since Ngaahika Ndeenda was shut down by the State. No one expects that this time round, there will be a similar reaction from the powers that be.

“The political climate has changed a lot since those old days,” says Fanual Mulwa who’s assistant director of the play. “There’s a lot more freedom of expression now than there was before.”