Spread your Garment: Women in the Bible come alive on stage

Spread Your Garment Over Me cast when it was staged at the Kenya National Theatre in 2022.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Spread your Garment over Me, also subtitled Life in the Bible through women’s eyes (and with its rousing music composed by Christoper Malendoski) was staged two years ago by Chemi Chemi Players. It received laudable reviews, several award nominations, and calls for the musical to be brought back on stage.

Thus, we saw it come back last weekend at Braeburn Theatre Gitanga Road in Nairobi where the show’s executive producer and director Julisa Rowe re-assembled the same seven award-nominated women minus one, Judy Wache, and replaced by Wakio Mwenza. “Otherwise, the script by Gillette Elvgren is essentially the same, apart from a few tweaks here and there,” Julisa told the BDLife on opening night.

Nonetheless, their performance felt fresh and new. It’s already based on a radical idea: that of viewing life in the Bible from a woman’s point of view. We already know the Biblical text was written by men exclusively, so it’s no surprise that women’s perspective, character, and identity in the Old Testament especially are rarely developed. They are like forgotten, invisible voices, which is why Elgren chose to write the play.

The New Testament is a bit better since Jesus was compassionate and merciful toward both women and men and often towards the most stigmatised. Like the Samaritan woman and the prostitute who had been ‘caught in the act,’ which, according to Mosaic law, meant she was liable to be stoned to death.

Jesus broke that man-made rule and chose to follow a higher rule, that of divine forgiveness and love. It got him into serious trouble but it was what he was meant to do. Nonetheless, her views and feelings about that whole experience were never revealed, which is why her story was told in act two of the play. 

Cleverly given as an eye-witness account by three peasant women (Wakio, Nyokabii Macharia, and Tina Banja) who kept their distance as they watched what was happening between the Pharisees, Jesus, and the adulterous woman.

All the other women whose lives were opened up and amplified were individual women who each gave moving monologues. The majority of them came out of the Old Testament and they were just a small sampling of all the unsung heroines in the Old and New Testaments.

But those who do get to tell their stories include Eve (Sakina Mirichii), Adam’s so-called help-mate who got them both into trouble due to a communication breakdown between them. For God had only told Adam, not Eve, about the rules given him by God. So, how could she have known about the hardship and consequences of her offering to Adam who’d been forewarned but didn’t take heed?

Nonetheless, it is Eve not Adam, who will forever be blamed for all the chaos and havoc that would ensue as a consequence of her offering Adam a sweet apple from the orchard in the Garden of Eden. It was meant to be a gift reflecting her love for him, not a broken promise to God.

The other Old Testament female characters in the play include Sarah, the wife to Abraham, who had previously been called Abram and his barren wife Sarah before Abram was informed by God that he and Sarah have a huge role to play in being the first patriarch and the one who’d take His chosen people into the land of milk and honey.

Julisa plays Sarah as well as Mary Magdalene, who’s the first at the tomb to meet the risen Jesus.

Nyokabi Macharia revives her wicked Witch of Endor role with panache and insidious charm. She also played the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well and was the first person he told he was the Son of God. She even played one of the three village women together with Wakio Mwenza and Tina Nduta who watched as Jesus forgive the woman caught in adultery.

Others whose fascinating stories were told include Claudia, the wife of Pontius Pilate, the governor who ultimately ordered the crucifixion of Jesus, played as a clever charmer by Sakina Mirichii. Rahab, the prostitute who saved her people from destruction was played by Tina Nduba Banja who was also one of the peasant women who saw Jesus defy the mosaic law by forgiving the adulterous woman.

Rizpah is one of the least known women in the Old Testament but her character was developed by the playwright once she decided Rizpah had a fascinating story to tell. She was one of King Saul's favourite concubines who was portrayed by Wakio as a lover who stepped away from the king as he was so busy warring against David, a war that he would eventually lose.

Then there was Wambui Kyama who played one of the two women prophets. One was Anna who waited for the Messiah in the temple since God had told her the son of God was coming shortly.

The other was Deborah, who was the first female judge and prophetess who was also called by God to prove that women can and are meant to stand by men as their peers, not their inferiors.

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