Art

Roundup: Covid couldn’t crush thespians in 2021

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Cast of Liquid Arts production of Taabu at Kenya Cultural Centre, December 10, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

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Summary

  • Many were either busy making movies or sitcoms for streaming on cable TV.
  • There were several virtual shows, one by Oroji Otieno that had a global cast and an incoherent theme.
  • Fortunately, there were a handful of other musical productions that couldn’t wait for Covid’s end to stage their productions.

Despite the lockdowns, curfews and masks, thespians were busy in 2021.

Not that many of our actors appeared on stage this past year. Many were either busy making movies or sitcoms for streaming on cable TV.

Others were simply waiting out the virus until, towards the year’s end, previously consistent groups like Heartstrings and Back to Basics finally came back on stage, reminding us how much we’d missed the veterans.

There were several virtual shows, one by Oroji Otieno that had a global cast and an incoherent theme. Another was Theatre for One, featuring six outstanding Kenyan women storytellers, each giving her audience her undivided attention.

And one, Tales of an Accidental City got rebranded from being a virtual play to being a short film that just won accolades at Kalasha Film Festival.

Early in the year, we’d heard that the NBO Musical Theatre Initiative was producing several new musicals. Since then, however, they have gone quiet.

Same with Nairobi Performing Arts Studio, but at least they’ve come up with new dates for staging Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s I’ll Marry When I Want in both English and Kikuyu by May, and Annie after that.

Fortunately, there were a handful of other musical productions that couldn’t wait for Covid’s end to stage their productions. All but one of them was engineered by a woman.

The first was by St Mary’s school. Under the direction of Jackie Kasuku, 40 secondary school students gave an ambitious performance of Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights.

The second was Subira, which was scripted, directed, and produced by the Ugandan playwright Judith Adong. It co-starred Nice Githinji in the title role with Gilbert Lukalia co-directing.

Beautifully staged with marvellous voices, the production suffered from poor (or lack of) editing. It should not have been a four-hour event.

Next came Rhoda Ondeng Wilhelmsen’s opera, Nyanga: Runaway Grandmother, which didn’t have that problem.

Her concept, the story of her adventurous, brave, and iconoclastic grannie was first made into an opera by her old high school music teacher and then adapted for the Kenyan stage by Michael James. Nyanga was the high point of the year as far as the staging of a professional production.

But the show that stole Kenyans’ heart, musically speaking, was Simba Bazenge by KCA University. Ogutu Muraya’s Sheng adaptation of the blockbuster hit, The Lion King was the surprise musical of the year. It revealed Ogutu as not just a masterful storyteller, but an outstanding stage director.

The other professional show was Cooper Rust’s annual production of the ballet, ‘The Nutcracker’, which, like the opera, doesn’t quite fit into the musical theatre category. But the show tells a beautiful children’s story that’s traditionally told at Christmas.

And in addition to being staged at Kenya National Theatre, Cooper offered a free performance to 1,000 children at the Carnivore.

The real theatrical action this past year was at Ukumbi Mdogo where there were new productions staged practically every weekend. Most of them were original scripts, often directed and produced by the playwright him or herself.

That was true of Men of Ambition Part I, which was written and directed by Bryan Orino. It was also the case with Trilateral, the show just recently staged, directed, and scripted by Aditi Mahaga.

The problem with that approach (as we saw with Subira) is that nobody was around to critique or edit the writer whose script might have been tweaked just a bit to improve the quality of the production.

Nonetheless, there was a lot of youthful energy and enthusiasm bundled up in plays like Youth Theatre Kenya’s Athena, On Trial, Kenyatta University students’ Contract Love, Igiza Arts’ Obnoxious Obviously, and Millaz Arts’ ‘Black Out’ which was restaged with ‘Man of Ambition’ at the best Kenya International Theatre (KIT) Festival that Kevin Kimani put together in the last six years.

Special kudos must go to Liquid Arts Production for being the first theatre group to venture forth and stage a live performance this year at Ukumbi Mdogo in February.