Original Kenyan theatre productions in 2019 were off the charts. There were more than I could have imagined, and many more that were well-staged than were not.
By original I mean the scripts were written by Kenyans, (not imported from America or the UK). Who knew until 2019 that we had so many brilliant playwrights in our midst!
We’ve been aware that John Sibi-Okumu is one of them, but it took Unplugged Footprints to bring Sibi’s Kaggia back onstage last month to remind us of his genius.
Martin Kigondu played Kaggia this time round, but his plays Matchstick Man and Who’s your Daddy were also staged in 2019.
Justin Mirichii also acted in Kaggia, but he too proved to be a playwright, scripting Free Fall for Mbeki Mwalimu, founder of Back to Basics. Mbeki also had a hand in putting Jackson Biko’s stories on stage as Breeze, Breeze II, Impervious and Man Moments, which was scripted and directed by Nick Ndeda who’s better known as an actor and radio man.
But Ndeda isn’t the only actor turned playwright. Most of Kenya’s most prolific writers were actors first. It’s true of Sammy Mwangi, Heartstrings Entertainment’s (HE) founder who devised almost a dozen comedies with his HE cast in 2019, plays like Don’t Panic, Double Trouble and Cat and Mouse.
It’s also true of Walter Sitati, founder, lead writer for Hearts of Art and producer of no less than five original plays last year, including Deliberate Contempt, All I Ever Wanted’ and What can’t Kill You.
Xavier Nato is another one who got his start acting in the Schools Drama Festival. In 2019, his plays, Son of Agich, Razor and Opiyo and Juliet were a delight to watch. Son of Agich even won a Sanaa theatre award.
Seth Busolo was also an actor long before he began writing, but after founding Wholesome Entertainment with wife Daisy, he went underground from 2015 until last year when they staged two of his scripts, Poison Ivy and Corporate Wife.
Bilal Mwaura is best known as an actor, but he wrote two plays in 2019 staged by Nice Githinji. Roll the Dice and Radicals were developed out of brainstorming sessions with Nice and her mentored young actors.
Theatre lecturers’ original scripts also got staged, including Dr Fred Mbogo’s The Dying Need No Shoes and A Revolution ate My Son while David Mulwa’s Redemption was brought back to life by Kenyatta University students; and Joseph Murungu’s Our Prophet Says He’s Dead was just one of his plays staged last year. His Riddle of Sangoma and Heartless also made it to the Schools Drama Festival.
Women writers were also busy last year. The LAM Sisters, who’d scripted Brazen in 2018 with Too Early for Birds, performed their first children’s play KaBrazen in 2019. Spoken-word poet Saumu Kombo wrote Before Dawn produced by Liquid Arts. And storytellers Mshai Mwangola with Mueni Lundi and Aghan Odera (of The Performance Collective) dramatised a whole series of African novels over the last year for the Pointzero Book Club.
But possibly the most politically-charged original script staged in 2019, Written on the Body, was written by Fiona Andia Kisia.
Spoken-word poets were also activist-artists in 2019. Most notably, Mufasa the Poet gave a most powerful performance at a Memorial showcase for the late, great Binyavanga Wainaina at Kenya National Theatre.
Storyteller Ogutu Muraya also gave several inspired one-man performances of Because I always feel like running in 2019, paying tribute to African runners like Kipchoge Keino and Abebe Bikila.
Other storytellers who recognised the monumental role of a great Kenyan hero were Too Early for Birds whose 5th Edition on Tom Mboya was undoubtedly the most electrifying original show of 2019. Blending comedy with tragedy, history, music and dance, Tom Mboya was an ensemble creation filled with deeply-researched facts presented so originally that it brought theatre-lovers back to see the show more than once.
But it was JJ Jumbi’s dazzling musical, Lwanda Rockman that won highest kudos at Sanaa Theatre Awards.
Finally, the most ambitious spur to create original theatre scripts in 2019 was Eric Wainaina, Sheba Hirst and Rainmaker Productions’ NBO Musical Theatre Initiative. Initially bringing together more than 11 groups of thespians who got guidance on how to write musical theatre from professionals from Sundance Institute and New York University, all 11 teams are preparing to stage original musicals this year. Four already performed portions of their shows at the Ugandan Theatre Festival in December.
We can’t wait to see the rest!