Outstanding plays of 2022

Mzee Simon arrives to save the day in "The Miser', a theatre performance at Alliance Francaise, September 14, 2022. PHOTO | NMG

It’s impossible to capture the totality of vibrant energy expressed on stage in 2022. We saw it everywhere from all four venues at Kenya National Theatre, one Mosque Hall in Kibera, and one Hindu temple stage in Loresho to platforms at both Braeburn Schools, Rosslyn Academy, and Woodcreek School.

We also saw shows regularly at Alliance Francaise, and we even went to see Silvia Cassini’s Speak their Names at Muthaiga Country Club.

So the settings were diverse and so were the genres. We saw scads of comedy coming from the usual suspects, namely Heartstrings Entertainment and Crony Players as well as from Aperture Africa and the Man-Made Woman, Esther Kahuhi.

We found there were even more satires, with shows like Chatterbox’s Irregardless, Liquid Arts’ Kipande, Moliere’s The Miser, and Something must Kill a Man.

Ahab Kioi (Hamprey Maina, in the grey suit) and his wife Jesebel (played by Angel Waruinge) sit as Hellen (Diana Wamaitha) prays in a scene during the staging of Ngugi wa Miiri and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's formerly banned play "I Will Marry When I Want/Ngaahika Ndeenda" at Kenya National Theatre on 10 October, 2022. PHOTO | NMG

And we also got to see Kenyan history dramatised in productions like Mekatilili wa Menza and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s and Ngugi wa Miiri's I will Marry when I want (performed in both English and Kikuyu).

Even Biblical history was staged by Chemi Chemi Players in plays like the all-woman script, Spread your Garment over Me and the all-male play Kings and Leaders.

Both of those were mainly based on a series of monologues. They weren’t the only shows we saw using that format. There were the Manic Monologues scripted by psychologist Shalini Bhalla-Lucas as well as The Sex Lives of African Women, directed by Kaz Lucas and presented rather like the Vagina Monologues where each woman took her turn telling truths about intimate personal experiences.

That type of truth-telling wasn’t nearly as scandalous as anyone might’ve expected. But quite a few other shows provided jaw-dropping moments.

One company that regularly dropped its curtain on a stunning surprise-ending was Heartstrings. Most of their shows ended with an O. Henry-styled shock that was improbable but possible as we saw.

But in addition to all of these, there were also amazing shows based on sheer storytelling. One of the busiest storytellers this past year was Martin Kigondu who not only staged his own solo monologue in Super Nova, a show in which the actor-scriptwriter took us on an emotional roller-coaster ride through one man’s life which touched our hearts.

Kigondu also had decisive roles in everything from the Ngugis’ I will marry when I want and Cassini’s Speak their Names to Blessed be the Fruit which he wrote and directed three brilliant women actors, namely Marrianne Nungo, Lorna Lemi, and Helena Waithera.

But then, Kigondu was one of many Kenyans who wrote and directed their own work in 2022.

A scene from the play "I Will Marry When I Want' written by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and Ngugi wa Miiri. PHOTO | NMG

It was true of Cassini who managed to assemble a brilliant cast to stage an awesome but surrealist script that had required the sensitivity of Brian Ogola, Nini Wacera, and Nixsha Shah to succeed as it did theatrically.

Other playwrights who ventured into directing and sometimes producing were Wreiner Harold, Orina Brian, Peter Tosh, Mohamed Ramadhan, Fred Mbogo, John JJ Jumbi, Zippy Okoth, Esther Kahuha, Mbeki Mwalimu, and of course, Sammy Mwangi. There are more, I’m sure.

For instance, Bhalla-Lucas may not consider herself a playwright, but her carefully-crafted psychological profiles of characters who were challenged emotionally during the pandemic were masterful, delicate, and deep. We hope she and the others will keep the scripts coming this year.

In the meantime, it was marvellous to see musicals like Les Miserables by Youth Theatre Kenya, Lion King by NPAS and Chatterbox’s Irregardless, having live musical accompaniment. Dance Centre Kenya’s Nutcracker ballet also worked with the live orchestra of Ghetto Classics conducted by Levy Wataka this year.

And even a two-hander like Something Must Kill a Man featured a small band to accentuate the emotions of that dynamic duet.

It was also good to finally see shows normally caught up at Kenyatta University come out to Kenya National Theatre this year.

Chupa breaking up a fight between Madam Mapesa and Claudette in Kipande 2 at Kenya Cultural Centre on August 7, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

It happened when Chisaina Players staged Victor Muyekwe’s Cougar and when Emmanuel Shikuku and Sam Onyang’o performed Athol Fugard’s The Island, directed by the amazing septuagenarian David Mulwa.

Mulwa holds a special place in the heart of practically all the students he’s ever taught at KU. That was why Dr Shikuku found it so easy to rally former Mulwa students to go together to see their Mwalimu at home in late 2022. The 77-year-old, who just recently retired from teaching, continues to be beloved as was clearly shown that day.

What’s more, few thespians have had a more profound impact on the good of Kenyan theatre than Mzee Mulwa.

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