Art

Six women storytellers tell bold, brazen tales

THEatre of One collage Sept. 5, 2021
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Summary

  • The six included Sitawa Namwalie, Mumbi Kaigwa, Aleya Kassam, Anne Moraa, Laura Ekumbo, and Mercy Mutisya.
  • Conceived twenty years ago by an American thespian, Christine Jones, Theatre for One is all about the one-on-one experience of the performer and their audience of one. 
  • Jones apparently felt the theatre experience is something to be shared intimately. Its performative style is interactive in that the audience of o-e is encouraged to engage with the actor, which to me sounds a bit risky. 

Theatre for One: We are Here (Nairobi Edition) is a fresh, ingenious and intimate approach to theatre that I was fortunate to experience for two nights last week. 

On both evenings, I experienced three different performances, one for each of the six Kenyan women selected to be involved in this experimental approach to theatre which previously has been staged all over the world. 

The six included Sitawa Namwalie, Mumbi Kaigwa, Aleya Kassam, Anne Moraa, Laura Ekumbo, and Mercy Mutisya.

Conceived twenty years ago by an American thespian, Christine Jones, Theatre for One is all about the one-on-one experience of the performer and their audience of one. 

Jones apparently felt the theatre experience is something to be shared intimately. Its performative style is interactive in that the audience of o-e is encouraged to engage with the actor, which to me sounds a bit risky. 

But that element of spontaneity is meant to be part of this experimental concept of theatre. It’s worked so well in the past that the ‘Nairobi edition’ was coproduced by New York University’s Art Centre in Abu Dhabi and Octopus Theatricals of New York.

In the past, Theatre for One was a live, face-to-face experience. But the coronavirus compelled the coproducers to take their shows online.

It worked for me first when Aleya Kassam performed ‘The Interview’ which she also wrote. She is in a bathroom setting since she says the room makes her feel closer to the sea. 

The LAM Sisterhood (2) (2)

Aleya Kassam (left), Laura Ekumbo (centre) and Anne Moraa. PHOTO | COURTESY

And since she says she is a jen (a kind of mermaid), this makes sense. She is in the process of ‘interviewing’ for a replacement of her dearest friend whom she recently lost. 

Her persona is alluring, but rather spooky and unsettling. That also makes sense since strange superstitions have been spun for centuries by seafaring sailors who got lured by these mysterious water-women, and then lost once they’ve fallen under their spell. 

Aleya’s gen has that alluring style that can easily entice someone to believe her sweet story and follow her back into the sea.

‘The Interview’, like all the performances, was only about ten minutes long. But that was sufficient for these six professional women actors to draw you totally into their unusual tales.

The one story that left me wanting more was Sitawa Namwalie’s ‘Killer Cop lives fast life’. All six storyteller had an edgy feminist flare to their performance, but this one is quite scandalous.

Sitawa plays an undercover cop who is shameless about her having shot dead two men. To her, they deserved whatever she gave, but the media isn’t telling her side of the story.

We meet her after she’d been reading headlines that misconstrue her actions, and she is not pleased about that. At the same time, she’s delighted that her deeds have triggered the military to be called up to search for her, a ‘mankiller’. She’s amused that she is seen as a threat to national security!

Sitawa gave us enough of her story to whet our appetites. But then, her time is up, and we are left panting for more from this fiercely iconoclastic ex-cop.

Then a few minutes later, Laura Ekumba casually presented a chatty script entitled ‘Aging’. She is getting set to attend her own birthday party, but she’s feeling queasy about turning 26. She claims it’s because she hasn’t picked the perfect song for the day. But really, we get the feeling she’s more concerned about time passing her by.

She keeps a journal in which she remembers poignant experiences from the ages of three up until now, suggesting that time is weighing on her thought, as if she is on the verge of getting old.

Yet the beauty of her performance is in her almost childlike innocence. At 26, she’s still young enough to care about a song and a dress. One feels her world is just opening up and she is ready for it. 

On night two, I experienced my first glitch and ended up missing Mercy Mutisya’s story. It made me sad, but also determined not to miss the final two: ‘The Beanie’ by Mumbi Kaigwa and ‘Cucu’ by Anne Moraa.

Again, they portrayed women who were startling for their strength of character, and even more startling because both break out of conventional womanly molds and burst out with defiant force.

In Mumbi’s case, her character is a filmmaker whose technicians mess up a critical moment in a shoot. Her reaction is emotional, even violent in her outrage expressed towards her crew.

She is forced to confront the impact of her unchecked emotions which come off as cruel and unkind. She has broken free from a soft, comforting, maternal role, but landed in a mudslinging, almost macho style of violence. Thankfully, she begins at the end to become more self-aware.

In Anne’s case, it’s her grandmother that apparently has been happily married for 40 years. But then, when she is out chopping wood, her husband comes and kicks her violently.

Instead of absorbing the pain and keeping quiet, she takes her ax and chops off his hand. Amazingly, the story ends as if “they lived happily ever after’. 

These are new women whose characters we have rarely seen before. And they are awesome, unsettling, bold, and brazen in their fearlessness. We expect to see more of them soon.