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Art

From fairy tale to what matatu women can do

Cinderella
Cinderella (left) at the Ball as Prince (right) announces change. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

With ‘Cinderella the Musical’, Amar Desai and the Aperture Africa Productions more than met our high expectations for a dazzling and delightful fairy tale. It was filled with magic and romance as well as intrigue, child abuse and some sinister threads of sabotage running through a show we’d expected to be a pure enchantment and fantasy.

Amar and Jinita produced a no-holds-barred performance last weekend at the Oshwal Centre Auditorium where everything from the costuming, casting, choreography, music, special effects and even the set construction was impeccably conceived.

A lot of success goes to its director Amar. For in all humility, the man played a Herculean (and hands-on) part in working on everything from the casting and choreography to the formation of an excellent 13-piece orchestra. He was even involved in construction of multiple sets that had elegantly painted backdrops.

The set painted most elaborately for the ball scene where Prince Charming (Tirath Padam) was meant to pick a bride was especially effective. Dominated by one giant clock, its presence reinforced the significance of the midnight hour when the magic bestowed on Cinderella (Stephaniah Lago) by her Fairy Godmother (Libby Ndambo) would cash out. The suspense of that approaching moment was dampened just a bit by too many ballroom dancers on stage making it difficult to keep track of the two-tiered drama underway.

For while the Prince and Cinderella were dancing and ‘falling in love’, the Prince’s guardian Sebastian (Arthur Saini) was conspiring with Cinderella’s sneaky self-mother (Elsie Oluoch). The two were scheming to marry off the Prince to Cinderella’s step-sister Gabrielle (Maya Spybey) so they would control the Prince’s kingdom and wealth.

What we hadn’t banked on in this version of Cinderella was its having a revolution brewing in the land. Instigated by Jean Michelle (Clinton Ahuta), the rabble rouser was the ‘voice of the people’, airing their grievances regarding Sebastian’s land-grabs. Claiming peasants’ land in the name of the Prince, Sebastian might have succeeded in staging a coup d’etat against the Prince if it hadn’t been for sweet Cinderella. She broke through his isolation from his people, advising him that injustices were taking place in his name. The story still ends with a ‘happily ever after’. The two lovers link up when the lost shoe fits her foot alone. But in Aperture’s version of this classic fairy tale, the coup is foiled before it can proceed. The rabble-rouser is made a Prime Minister and Sebastian loses his grip on the power and land he’d tried to steal from the Prince and his people.

The politics embedded in Apertures’ Cinderella could easily have been overlooked in light of the seamless style of the production. But politics added a healthy hot spice to an otherwise sugary bitter sweet tale.

Meanwhile, at Alliance Francaise ‘Wamama wa Mathree: Stories from Nairobi Matatu Women’ was a radically different kind of show.

Caroline Odongo’s original script was composed with support from a team of women working in the matatu industry and a western NGO, the Flone Initiative.

Wamama wa Mathree is the second all-women production that’s come onto the Nairobi stage in the last two months. Brazen preceded Wamama, with both shows sharing women’s stories with a view to raising public awareness and empowering women.

But Brazen was specifically about women figures who may be less known but have a place in history. In contrast, Wamama, which was directed by Veronica Waceke, was about women who most people may not even know have a role in Kenya’s transport industry.

We may have seen the occasional female ‘tout’ or matatu conductor. But who knew that hundreds of women are ‘manamba’? It’s their stories that were told in Wamama, both by actors like Marrianne Nungo, whose character Sonnia traces the life before and after becoming a matatu mama, and by actual matatu women whose testimonials were interspersed between the drama unfolding in Sonnia’s life.

The actors are just five, but all except Nungo play multiple characters: Michelle Tayars and Kennedy Ogutu as well as Nungo who plays a powerful but impoverished single mother who struggles to raise her daughters (Wajuma Bahati and Pauline Kyalo).

It’s a path that finally leads to Sonnia joining the matatu business. But she wants equity and a trade union, highlighting the challenges working class women face.

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