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Art

Back to Basics brings new life to Kenyan stage

Bruce Makau and Mary Mwikali
Bruce Makau and Mary Mwikali in ‘Impervious’. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

Mbeki Mwalimu has been a constant presence on the Nairobi theatre scene ever since she first arrived, fresh from Machakos and joined Mbalamwezi Players in 2004. Having been a star in her girls’ school’s drama club, she arrived in the “big city” with a well-oiled work ethic that supposed Nairobi casts would be as disciplined as her school productions had always been.

Sadly, that wasn’t what she found. So she happily followed one of the Players’ founders, Eliud Abuto once he launched Festival of Creative Arts (FCA) in 2007.

“I stuck with FCA for many years,” says Mbeki whose love of theatre was nurtured by both Abuto and the company’s then director, Caroline Odongo.

“Carol’s style of directing was very different from what I had found at Mbalamwezi,” she concedes, noting that even now, she loves Carol directing her as she plays the villain in the Maisha Magic TV production, Selina.

“I learned that the best way to work with actors is by treating them like family,” she adds, implying that bullying and barking during rehearsals never makes actors happy or more creative.

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It was with FCA that Mbeki began directing. “Carol really took me under her wing and showed me how to do it right,” she says.

The only problem was that FCA’s full-house crowds began to be weary of the group’s consistently staging British comedies.

“Initially, FCA fans were good with our indigenising those farces, but gradually their interest waned,” she recalls. “Before that time, FCA was able to stage two shows simultaneously, one at Alliance Francaise, the other at Kenya National Theatre, and both played to full houses. I was able to live on my theatre work from the moment I went to work with FCA,” she says, noting she not only acted but directed and also became the troupe’s production manager.

But once she realized FCA’s audiences wanted more than Kenyanised makeovers of Western scripts, she quit FCA. That was 2016. “I was miserable without theatre for a year and a half,” she says. All that time she was feeling that if she joined another group or formed a company of her own, it would be an act of “betrayal”.

Nonetheless, by 2018, she had suffered enough. She had acted in several TV and radio shows, but her first and true love was for live theatre. And that is how Back to Basics was finally formed.

Rallying a host of friends who were also actors, writers and potential directors, she put on B2B’s first show, Strangers by Blood on the Michael Joseph stage.

“I was petrified,” she admits. “I had the story idea in my head but shared it with Justin Mirichii who wrote down. He claims it was his first real play but I thought he did a brilliant job.”

She says it wasn’t easy for him or her cast since she “tried something new. I had my cast talk to the audience as if it was their therapist. It initially sounded strange, but it actually worked.”

After that Back to Basics has been doing great guns. In 2018 they staged four plays, all of which she conceived but others wrote. They included Mutual Misery, Legally Insane which was an ingenious sequel to Strangers by Blood and the first Breeze.

In 2019 B2B performed five shows which followed the same format: She’d come up with the story and structure and then share her thoughts with either Mirichii or Nick Ndeda. “But before anyone sat down and wrote, we’d take it to the cast to get their input,” she adds. The five were Free Fall, Impervious, Breeze II, Man Moments and Decompress.

The three exceptions to that style of working (with either Justin or Nick) were Breeze I, Breeze II and Impervious.

“What I did was call up Jackson Biko and told him I was a fan of his Biko Zulu stories and wanted to transform several of them into plays. He laughed initially as he’d been told that before. But he agreed to share the ones I wanted. Then later, I asked him to write Impervious for me, which he did.”

Mbeki already has ideas for plays to stage this year. “We’re planning to put on five original shows in 2020,” she says, noting the first is already in the works. She won’t say much about it except that it is likely to be “controversial.”

“We want to put on quality plays that spark conversations and make people think.”

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