In the Usanii Mashariki Gallery at Waterfront Mall, in Nairobi’s Karen, the atmosphere sways with resplendent faces as they follow Ichor, a contemporary piece of performing art that highlights sexuality of the modern woman, and the vagaries that surrounds the masculine society that is willing to embrace their emancipation.
The rich theme is apt; it is June when the achievements of women are celebrated world over even as they continue to face hardships. Ichor, pronounced Aika or Aiko, means the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods. After the invigorating show, there are audible gasps of genuine appreciation, followed by thunderous applause.
Afterwards, visibly relieved with the reception accorded by the play, Adeti Mahaga and Brian Orina take questions in an interactive session. The consensus from the crowd is that the play was deep, dark, and educative.
“I educate before I entertain,” says Adeti. She works for Nyakagwa Mahaga Performing Arts previously staged
A few weeks later on a Sunday evening in July, the crowd shifts to Kenya National Theatre for Father Studies written by Ted Munene, Sheldon Owinya, and Allan Lumumba.
“Three heads are better than one,” echoes Claire Wahome, the play’s producer, and CEO of Millaz Productions. It took four months to write the script.
The 18-strong-cast play is phenomenal. It highlights the plight of the boy child, father-boy relationships, and points out the leadership lacuna in a family left with a ‘worthless’ son.
Father Studies is rewarding, incorporating Ubutuani language, dressings, and dances. It seduces with political undertones tacitly sauced in comic utterances. “We are keen on quality, and try not to compromise on plays,” adds Clare.
Millaz previously staged Razor, Opiyo and Juliet, and Backstreet. Its Blackout show won five awards during this year’s February inaugural Kenya Theatre Awards (KTA) ceremony, including in the Playwright category which was won by Xavier Nato.
The KTA event, packed to the brim, showcased the comeback of Kenya's performing arts. Ben Ngobia, the KTA Jury Chairperson, says the awards will be an annual February event, further incentivising an already growing community of theatre lovers and aficionados.
“This is just the first edition of a tradition that we hope will grow into Kenya’s own version of something like the American Academy Awards or the Tony’s,” he says.
Kenya's performing arts scene gained popularity in the 1970s when activists such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o used it as a medium to give voice to strong liberation messages through such plays like Ngaahika Ndeenda.
The government, however, was not amused and cracked down on performing arts with a heavy hand and the audience grew thinner.
When the democratic space expanded, the new generation had alternative media platforms, and theatre audience had dropped sharply. Even the University of Nairobi Travelling Theatre became moribund. It felt like Kenyan theatre was officially dead.
“Years ago, productions were much better because a lot went into it. Rehearsals took months. These days sometimes they just take a few weeks,” says Ian Mbugua, a celebrated Kenyan thespian, who was also part of the KTA Awards jury.
Full time job
Performing arts further waned from Kenya’s social and economic scenes because of talent drain (filming industry snapped them out), poor policies, and lack of financial incentives. Theatre performances are often costly, require a resourceful and dedicated staff, and take a longer time (than film) to execute.
“This is a full-time job. I will use the analogy of the Kenyan athletes; they wake up early every day to better themselves. It is upon the artist to nourish themselves constantly and positively to achieve the desired quality in theatre,” says Alacoque Ntome, an artist and researcher in arts and culture.
The allure for the film, which offers better pay, fewer lines per take, and is spaced out also dampened dedication in theatres. Not only does a perfect performance take months to execute; it has only one take. And actors must learn their entire script for a single performance!
“Film is paying better than theatre,” says Ben Tekee, a Kenyan artist. “The money made by an artist cumulatively, from rehearsals to staging, can be made in a day by a film actor.”
Talent management is also wanting, leading to a deeply entrenched and unaddressed scourge of despondency amongst artists of immense repute.
“We have people with vision that manage the artists, but not the artist’s visions,” according to Mr Ntome. This has led to alcoholism and drug abuse, affecting optimal talent capacity of an artist.
Apart from talent, education and experience play a huge role in the quality of production, says Adeti, an alumnus of the University of Nairobi’s School of Performing Arts. “We have more and more people taking up performing arts seriously and by studying it, and that results in good performances,” adds Mr Mbugua.
Despite the challenges, performing arts is gaining a modicum of traffic, with credible and quality plays taking centre stage. Whereas complimentary tickets used to dominate these events, Nairobians are becoming receptive to paying premium for brilliant executions.
Companies are also seeking visibilities in these platforms, giving the industry the much-needed finances to flawlessly prepare the shows.
Maybe, the comeback can be attributed to the growing consciousness of political vacuity amongst the citizenry, or they are becoming conscious of their body and their personal plights and struggles.
“At that time [the 1970s], performing arts was used as a tool for people to show their defiance. It had strong messaging to give, especially to the government. It was their Twitter,” says Mr Mbugua.
Whatever form the reasoning imbuing interest in the theatres comes in, the allure of live performances cannot be gainsaid. The ability for the viewers and artists to express themselves within the same vicinity, feeding into their respective energies, is the ultimate satisfaction of a theatre lover.
And KTA team, cognisant of this growing industry, says their annual awards will also track live stage theatrical performances and feed the public with basic data, to “honour outstanding productions, artists and the legacy of practitioners who have become icons while encouraging and celebrating a blend of innovation and excellence in theatrical productions”.
Once a person imbibes and dopamines their mind with raw and real entertainment, there is a high probability they will continue to flock the theatres in the continual quest for such perfection.
As aptly put by Dr Mshai Mwangola, the oraturist and a performance scholar who uses the lens of culture in her work as an academic, artist, and activist during a conversation with Karishma Bhagani, performing arts is a “representation of lived experience”.