A fortnight-full of global, regional and local stories filled national theatre

Full cast of 'Bigger Boys of Shibale'. FILE PHOTO | POOL

From the autobiographical Ujumbe and The Absurd (Kenyatta University) to the profound The Ape Address and the playful The Puppets, both Indian, Kenyan), to the political and satiric (Woza Albert), the personal (Meetings) and poetic (Still I rise), there was so much to see at this year’s KITFEST 2023, one could have spent the last two weeks at Kenya National Theatre just watching fantastic performances. 

The diversity of the showcase did not stop with thoughtful plays and storytelling. There was a good deal of dancing as well, including everything from Western ballet (Sleeping Beauty) to traditional dance from Italy and India to indigenous dance coming from the six counties where KITFEST had run workshops, namely Embu, Kiambu, Uasin Gishu, Mombasa, Nakuru and Kisumu. 

But there was also non-stop activity inside other Kenya Cultural Centre spaces. For instance, at Cheche Gallery, all the audio plays produced during the Swiss-sponsored radio-play workshop were available to listen to as you relaxed on cushy sofas and comfy seats.

In fact, the addition of several relevant workshops this year strengthened the festival’s appeal. Both students and professional performers were welcomed to attend sessions on everything from producing, lighting, and festival management to dance theatre reviewing, and a form of storytelling that Ogutu Muraya calls the Maabara Method, which focuses on the process of creating theatre, not just the product (the opening night). 

Then there was the Magic Matatu bus, created out of plywood and transported from Storymoja (where Muthoni Garland had kindly let Brian Irungu construct his stationary bus) to the front entrance of the Kenya National Theatre, especially for KITFEST.

Filled with mini-stalls, the bus became a central location where people could watch movies, make live music, recite spoken-word poetry, sell hand-made trinkets, or simply hang out while waiting for the next performance to begin.

Since KNT was under renovation, the bus was strategically situated, just near the giant tent put up specially for KITFEST. It hardly compared to the actual theatre itself, but it worked. 

Using projected images as landscapes and other lively backgrounds, the technicians working with the festival did an excellent job. For instance, for a production like The Sound of Music presented by St Mary’s School, the visual backdrop gave one a marvellous view of the Alps that stretched across the stage so one felt we were right there with the cast.

There were also several European and one Indian company that utilised the stage well. The European companies came from Finland, Germany, Italy, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK. The Indians also came with their charming puppets, one group of which wore costuming and face paint to become ‘human puppets’ themselves.

Several African troupes also managed to make it to KITFEST. They came from Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, and they all promised to come back next year.

One suggestion I would make to the organisers is that next year, they don’t put all the ex-pat performances in the evenings. It’s not easy, after spending the whole day (many programmes started at 9am) to spend a full 12 hours in the theatre. Just a thought.

One of the early morning productions that were so popular it had to be restaged was Story za Thuita. It was a walking tour of the Centre Centre wherein the story itself was embedded in Kenyan history which is largely hidden from the public.

But Thuita Mwangi had done his research and created an engaging story, which allowed him to behave like a pied piper, leading his audience with him from the Norfolk Hotel where the Harry Thuku protests led to the martyrdom of Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru down to Jivanjee Garden and the Railways.

One of the clever features of this year’s festival was to have trailers and theatrical tidbits at the opening to whet people’s appetites to stick around until the festival’s last day. The one I found most compelling was The Bigger Boys of Shibale.

Mark Wabwire and Allan Wasike just gave enough of a taste of their epic story about the rise and fall of the sugar industry starting at the Shibale sugar factory. The story is about the multi-layered competition between the Bigger Boys, charmingly told with musical accompaniment, dance, and lively humour coming from the depths of these two men’s souls.

The Bigger Boys served as book-ends for the festival since we met them on KITFEST’s opening day and finally got to see their full story on the festival’s final day, having watched heaps of amazing theatre in between.

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