Maya Angelou was prescient when she wrote the iconic poem Phenomenal Woman in the late seventies. Last weekend at Kenya National Theatre, I saw so many phenomenal women on stage acting and assisting as crew in The Brazen Edition of (the theatre troupe) Too Early for Birds that I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!
Seriously, I have never seen a production that was totally owned, operated, conceived, enacted and embellished all by Kenyan women. (Even men were played by women!)
But that was what the three scriptwriters- Aleya Kassam, Anne Moraa and Laura Ekumbo- achieved together with a tremendous team of exceptional actors, dancers, set designers, technicians, stage manager and director.
But the women did even more than that. Theirs was a performance that not only combined passionate poetry, vigorous dance, and exquisite storytelling with an expansive view of remarkable (and rebellious) Kenyan women who the writers and full cast vowed never to forget.
Those not-to-be forgotten legendary souls included freedom fighters like Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza, Wangu wa Makeri, Philomena Chelagat Mutai, Zarina Patel and even one iconoclastic yet nameless woman warrior (possibly Auko) who beguiled, outwitted and then brought down Luanda Magere, the legendary Man of Stone.
Yet it was equally the way each of their heroic stories were told by a room-full of awesome storytellers and then reenacted by Legends (Nyokabi Macharia), assisted by Anne Moraa (playing men with gutsy gusto) that made Brazen such an important, unprecedented and inspirational show.
Their stories were framed within the memories of the Cucu (Sitawa Nambalie), her care-givers Beatrice (Suki Wanza Nyadawa) and Bosi (Mercy Mbithe Mutisya) and her one-time women’s history students, all of whom huddled around their retired, revered and very wise history professor. Then together, they vividly revived and dramatised these courageous female freedom fighters’ lives.
Employing theatrical devices that worked remarkably well, the scenes flowed seamlessly (apart from one brief lapse after the GQ Dancers revved us up at the outset). Director Wanjiku Mwawuganga made excellent use of the massive National Theatre stage as one side was made over into a cosy sitting room for Cucu and her adoring entourage. The other was where history (or rather herstory) was reenacted before our eyes as their stories were first told in turn by Cucu and her flamboyant former students and then the attention would turn toLegend’s re-enactment of our heroines’ incredible lives.
The genius of keeping the infinitely talented Nyokabi in the role of Legends meant that she became a kind of shape-shifter, enacting practically all our historic heroines. She first dramatised the story of Mekatilili who led the Mijikenda against the British coloniser defying stereotypes associated with gender, age, intellect and strategic leadership.