Twice banned play by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii, Ngaahika Ndeeda was finally coming back to the Kenya stage for the first time in more than 40 years.
Nairobi Performing Arts Studio was scheduled to stage both the Kikuyu and English versions of the controversial play in mid-June.
It would have been the world premiere performance of I Will Marry When I Want. But for now, everything about the productions is on hold indefinitely.
Kenyan theatre generally has been especially hard hit by the government directive to cancel all group gatherings, including public performances like plays, concerts, festivals and public debates of all kinds.
“This situation [meaning the Covid-19 pandemic] will have to end at some point, but no one knows when,” says Stuart Nash, the producer-director of both plays who is also the founder and artistic director of the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio (NPAS).
Mr Nash had already begun rehearsals for the shows, starting last Saturday at Kenya National Theatre with the music. He had invited Wakonyote Njuguna, who was a student at Nairobi University when Ngaahika Ndeeda was banned, Kamiirithu Theatre and open-air stage bulldozed by the government and both Ngugis detained overnight, to come teach NPAS students the traditional Kikuyu songs from the play.
Wakonyote, who in the 1970s and ‘80s was an actor in his own right, had already come to the Studio to talk to the students about the historical context and background of the play.
“We had planned to hold auditions for several parts this past Wednesday,” says Nash who has already filled several key roles, but is still looking for several more actors to fill the remaining roles.
The actors now committed to play some of the lead characters include Martin Githinji, Bilal Mwaura and Martin Kigundo as well as Anne Stellah and Nyce Wanjiru.
But there are several women’s roles available as well as a number of men’s. There are also parts available for Mau Mau Freedom Fighters, British soldiers, African home guards and workers as well as for singers, dancers, musicians and children. However, most of those will be filled by NPAS students since participation in the production provides credits towards the students getting certified by NPAS.
“We’d like to continue preparations for staging the plays online,” says Nash. But so far, he is still working out the details. One option is for actors to send in short videos to NPAS for casting consideration. But performing artists will be notified, again online.
“Initially I had planned to stage only the English version of Ngugis’ play. But then it dawned on me to put on both versions, the English and the original Kikuyu,” says Nash whose decision generated heaps of local enthusiasm and interest.
“But there was no way NPAS could work with two different casts,” Nash continues, noting both the finances and time constraints made it virtually impossible.
“I had no choice but to find actors with a command of both English and Kikuyu,” he says. But that has proved to be a challenge since some actors he had hoped to work with claimed their Kikuyu wasn’t good enough to be in the show.
But as there is no shortage of theatrical talent in Kenya, Nash is optimistic about getting his full cast together even if auditions have to continue online. The issue, of course, is when the shows will open.
“Even if the ban was lifted after 30 days, that would provide too little time to be ready by June,” says Nash who had also had plans to take the productions to Nakuru, just as he did last year with the cast of Sarafina.
This weekend, the widow of Ngugi wa Mirii, Margaret Wairimu will come to Nairobi to see Mr Nash.
“We had planned to have her share with our students about the historical background as well as her personal experiences from that time since she was in the original cast,” says Nash who has produced musicals in Kenya since he was invited in 2015 to come from the West End of London (UK’s version of Broadway) to stage musicals for one international school in Nairobi.
Since then, he started NPAS in 2016 and staged musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Caucasian Chalk Circle and most recently Sarafina.
When he originally chose to do the Ngugis’ play, he hadn’t known much about the historical circumstances of Ngaahika Ndeeda. But having learned more, he is still keen to stage both plays for Kenyan audiences.