It’s finally happening! Kenyan thespians, script and screen writers are at last taking seriously the need to create scripts and tell their own stories. They’re doing it for stage as well as film and TV.
Film seems to be where the most robust forces are at work. We’ve not only seen this with the Academy award nominee film Watu Wote and the Berlinale award winner, Supa Modo but also with Tosh Gitonga’s Disconnect, Philippa Ndisi-Hermann’s New Moon and Hawa Esseun’s Silas.
More recently, Wanuri Kahiu’s latest film, Rafiki, has been invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France! This will be the first feature film to premiere at Cannes which is shot, scripted and stars all Kenyans.
Nonetheless, original scripts are also being born more rapidly than ever in Nairobi’s theatre world. No longer are we only counting on Heartstrings to come up with newly-devised scripts every month.
They just recently staged Hit and Run and will soon be opening in another freshly devised show, Milk and Honey. Friday (and tomorrow) we’ll be watching Zippy Okoth’s original one-woman show, Stranger in my Bed, at PAWA254. Zippy’s autobiographical script is both weep-able and raucously funny. Either way, it comes straight from her heart.
Then the weekend starting April 28, Mbeki Mwalimu’s Back to Basics crew will premiere their second original script, Mutual Misery, at Alliance Francaise.
It was just a couple of weeks back that Mbeki enlisted Justin Miriichi (who’d just scripted and staged My Better Halves) to write Strangers by Blood which was a poignant way to launch the new troupe on our local theatre scene.
Right after B2B takes a break, Walter Sitati’s Hearts of Art returns on May 3 with What Cannot Kill You, another original work by Walter who is one of Kenya’s finest playwrights and one who comes out with new works regularly. His last play, Repair my Heart, combined romance with raw violence and politics.
The other thespian who not only writes but produces and directs his new plays is Martin Kigondu who, with his Prevail Arts troupe and Renegade Ventures, just re-staged his play What Happens in the Night at the Kenya National Theatre annex.
The compact stage of the annex ensured this new version of Kigondu’s modern classic was more intimate and expressive of the emotional depths that this family saga was bound to reach but didn’t quite attain during its initial rendering on the wide Daystar University stage several months back.
Kigondu also made two major casting changes that transformed the play from being slightly tepid to becoming a far more impassioned, even explosive, production.
The main cause of the show’s volatility was Marrianne Nungo who, together with her stage brother Bilal Mwaura, brought a whole new approach to the play.
Both were new to the production with Marrianne (who just starred in Likarion Wainaina’s Supa Modo) replacing ChiChi Seii and Mwaura taking on the role of Ray, Yvonne’s brother after Mouad Sadat left to pursue his legal practice.
Both Yvonne and Ray are children of a retired politician played by Salim Gitau. Both have problematic relations with their father who comes to see his children briefly (they live in the same house with their spouses played by Nick Ndeda and Shivishe Shivisi) but departs the same night, never to be seen again.
But both Yvonne and Ray have troubled marital relations as well. Unfortunately, Kigondu doesn’t delve deeply into those issues despite our seeing that both couples have deep-seated problems.
They range from Ray’s wife’s drug abuse, which is possibly related to an abortion she’d had some time back, to Yvonne’s jobless writer husband’s unfulfilled ambitions which lead to his complicity in high crimes.
What Happens in the Night is part family drama, part murder mystery and part thriller, which is part of the problem that I had with the play.
Kigondu raises tantalising issues in both act one and act two. But unfortunately, act one feels like the family is the central place where conflicts arise but they are left unresolved by act two when somebody dies (actually the father) and the play becomes a whodunit murder mystery.
But it is not quite that either since Yvonne’s conviction that her father was murdered is one more issue left up in the air at the play’s end.
Perhaps the father should have died sooner so we could have explored the whodunit bit and discovered what makes the two couples tick in the process.