It’s never easy to stage a play, leave alone a musical, which is set in rural Africa without the tale looking slightly contrived. But Millaz Production managed to do it with Razor, the remarkable play scripted by Justin Ong’wen, directed by Xavier NATO and staged last weekend at Kenya National Theatre.
There are several reasons why the production worked. Millaz’s large cast was well rehearsed, including the singers who doubled up as villagers and the dancers whose stylish choreography made sense, especially when villagers went running after the two city girls and the chase got dramatised through dance.
What’s more, the costuming was consistent with what we know about traditional Maasai culture. The body painting was beautiful as was the jewellery, and the circumciser’s hut looked authentic.
But there were other features that kept us on our toes as we watched Razor, a production we learnt after the show had been first staged at the 2014 Kenya Schools Drama Festival. Apparently, it made such a powerful impression on Xavier NATO that he’d vowed to stage it again.
One thing that worked was the way much of the play was staged as a flashback. Or shall we call it a narrated memory of Melanie’s mother, Naserian (Regina Awuor), the Maasai woman who had run away from wedlock after she’d been forcibly circumcised at age 14 and then made immediately to sleep with the older man, Moiket (Andrew Smollo), in an arrangement that both her parents condoned.
The play had opened in a courtroom in which Naserian and her daughter Melanie (Brenda Gesare) are suing Moiket for damages caused to the mother. But as she is comatose as the play begins, the court has no evidence with which to convict the man so it’s about to set him free.
But moments before the ruling is made, Naserian revives and the flashback proceeds.
Naserian’s Maasai community is about to be evicted by Moiket since he was never repaid Naserian’s dowry and yet 20 years have gone by. He’s come either for another bride (he already has three wives) or for the dowry. Otherwise, he’s reclaiming the people’s property which he claims he owns.
That’s when Melanie arrives at her mother’s village. She’s a city girl who’s never visited rural areas before. But apparently, she’s come not simply out of curiosity or to get acquainted with her cultural ‘roots’. No, she’s come for the unconvincing reason of wanting to ‘ask the blessings’ of her relations for her anticipated marriage to her gay girlfriend and partner, Taylor (Clare Wahome).
That’s the only unconvincing element in the play. It makes more sense for her to have come to meet her mother’s family. But even that seems contrived since she knows why her mother had fled.
In any case, Melanie falls into the trap of becoming the sacrificial lamb who’s picked to pay off her family’s debt to Moikot by marrying the guy. But before that happens, we have a flashback within the flashback and we see the re-enactment of Naserian’s harrowing circumcision.
What’s genius about this move is that the whole experience of FMG is never seen, but the pain inflicted on Melanie’s mom is palpable. (However, we didn’t need two weepy actresses replaying Naserian’s pain to feel it viscerally.)
What was also brilliant about Ong’wen’s script is the way Melanie, in partaking of her mother’s pain, was able to explain why she was gay and had no interest in being with a man after what men (and women) did to her mom.
Again, what doesn’t make sense about Melanie’s coming ‘home’ to her mother’s village to seek her grandfather’s blessing is that he is the man who didn’t just condone his daughter’s circumcision. He mercilessly made her go with Moiket, even before her wound was healed, thus ensuring her pain would be even more excruciating.
Who saved the day was the circumciser woman (Bettina Nyanchama). She discerned that Melanie could not marry Moikot because he had hastily impregnated her mother, making Melanie his child.
The fact that some people have called Razor a comedy is odd, but Xavier NATO managed to keep the story comedic despite its dealing with such heavy topics as FMG and homosexuality.
Yet both issues are treated not in sensational terms but as topics that reflect one more clash of cultures. In this case it’s between patriarchy Maasai-style and women’s defiance of it, coming from a contemporary urban context which is a reality in Kenyan life today.