Community theatre took on new meaning once SAFE (Sponsored Arts for Education) started up in Mombasa in 2002 and its actors began going out into the community to ask the people what were the burning issues affecting their lives.
After that, the Safe Theatre players took time to transform those issues into stories for the stage, and on occasion also for film. Then they performed those stories as what can appropriately be called community theatre.
One of those plays came to Alliance Francaise last Wednesday night when the Mombasa-based theatre company staged its latest production, Watatu.
Safe has worked mainly at the Coast but also in Nairobi’s Eastlands. It was Safe Pwani that staged Watatu, a story reflecting the Coastal community’s concern over terrorism.
Sage itself is more broadly concerned with peace and conflict resolution. So, it was these issues that Safe Pwani explored both in the play and in the ‘interventions’ that followed it and played an integral role in the overall production of Watatu.
‘The interventions are where the community can get fully involved in discussing the play and the issues addressed there,” David Kalume of Safe Pwani told the BDLife and an audience watching this unusual form of theatre.
‘Unusual’ in the sense that the audience was invited to critique the play and even come up on stage to make changes they thought would work more effectively to resolve the problems shared with the Safe researchers.
The story of Watatu is about two families, one Muslim and one Christian, that have come together based on the childhood friendship of Salim (Mohamed Mwatso) and Jack (George Kituto).
The complications start coming just as soon as the two families meet. It turns out many Coastal people are resentful of the Upcountry crowd who come to Mombasa specifically to ‘steal jobs’ from the locals.
The tensions are compounded by the fact that most of the new arrivals are Christians while most Coastals are Muslims.
Jack and his family have just shifted to the Coast since he’s been transferred by his employer, Kenya Police, to Mombasa where John has chosen to move into his old neighbourhood.
Unfortunately, he is not welcomed by Salim’s mother-in-law Aisha (Salma Khalifa) who instantly picks a fight with Jack’s mother-in-law Rita (Teresa Shikolio).
The other complication is Salim’s nephew, Yusuf (Said Ndoro) who has gotten mixed up with Al Shabaab-styled characters. These are terrorist types who have recruited Yusuf and intend to take him for ‘training’ in Somalia.
Yusuf has kept his plan for departure a secret. But his nosey sister Khadija (Kasichana Mark) discovers his plan as well as the Somalis’ affiliation with Al Shabaab. She alerts their mother who pleads with him to stay home.
While this is going on, breaking news is of the bombing of the church that Jack and his wife and daughter attend. Fortunately, they survived, but Yusuf’s Somali recruiter friend Musa (Feisal Hamadi) dies in the bomb blast, suggesting that he might have had something to do with the bombing.
But before that issue can be raised, Yusuf seeks revenge and takes a knife to look for it from Jack. The story ends abruptly with Yusuf stabbing Jack to death.
It was then that the interventions began and the community was requested to get fully involved. Kalume asked, “How could that outcome have been avoided?”
“Where were the early signs that might have been addressed, and thereafter averting the ensuing violent end?”
As it turned out on Wednesday night, the audience had many comments to make when called upon by Kalume.
It was then that theatre was meant to take on the participator role of educator by making people think about what might be the best interventions to defuse the tensions and resolve the conflict before it erupted into the violence that resulted in Jack’s demise.
Several audience members felt it should have been addressed first among the mothers-in-law. Some felt it needed to be between Yusuf and his mother or with his dad.
And a few felt so strongly about the changes that could affect a resolution of the conflict that they got up on stage and took on the character of Salim or Salma.
Kalume also called the actor playing Yusuf to respond to his new dad or mom, which he did well.
No conclusion was reached, but one had to feel deep appreciation for the powerful actors in Safe who adapted so well to the ‘interventions’ and played their parts with passion and conviction.