Is it too much to say that Sarafina the musical has it all! Talk about fabulous live music, beautiful choreography and a dance troupe wholly in sync with the sound, spirit and story of Soweto students’ militant resistance to the South African Apartheid system.
When it opened last weekend at Kenya National Theatre, courtesy of Nairobi Performing Arts Studio, there were spine-tingling moments that barely waned, especially when Sheila Munyiva as Sarafina came on stage. She’s not the first Sarafina we have seen, since the play was scripted by Mbongeni Ngema back in 1986, made into a film in 1992 and re-staged the world over, including in Kenya in 2003 when Mkamzee Mtawale starred in the title role and 2018 when Brenda Wairimu did the same. But this time round, the show has the benefit of a cast filled with a powerhouse of stars: some were there last year like Mkamzee, Hellen Mtawali and Fanuel Mulwa. But then Sheila’s Sarafina adds a fiery presence that electrifies the whole stage and sparks a chain reaction, particularly as Martin Githinji co-stars as her nemesis, the villainous Sabela. He’s the African who (like Kenyan home guards) stands in for the European oppressor with as much, if not more ferocity and vile.
But what’s particularly remarkable about this staging of the modern classic — apart from it not aging over the years, (possibly because the heroic tale of the downtrodden resisting exploitation is an iconic theme) is the intensity of feeling. Both sides are virtually at war, with neither one prepared to relent. It was true at the time and true in the play which dramatises that profound clash of opposites with tragic consequences.
People die in this Sarafina, not like the somewhat sugar-coated film in which Whoopi Goldberg soft-pedals the role so powerfully played by Mkamzee, She’s the history teacher who conscientiously instills a sense of pride among her students, and pays with her life. Yet as stunning as are those moments when many of our favourite characters get clobbered, water-boarded and shot outright by the Boers and their stooges, it’s the spirit of ‘do-or-die’ that the students and their inspiring teacher consistent project in their dance, song and incessant outrage that will be best remembered from this Sarafina — a show that may go down as one, if not the best, dramatic musical of 2019.