Saumu Kombo is a young poet and playwright who has teamed up with the Liquid Theatre Company on several occasions. Most recently, Liquid staged her drama Before Dawn last weekend at Kenya Cultural Centre.
The premise of her play is intriguing. The story is set in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, where we see there’s a style of sectoral self-government in which Lady Tajiri (Lisa Gitu) has been selected to serve as the locals’ ‘protector’. She’s the activist-spokesperson who stands up for the ‘hood’ whenever outside forces try to interfere with people’s everyday lives.
Her close friend Sue (Irene Mungai) is a courageous political blogger who works closely with Lady T. She’s the one who keeps her ear to the ground and publicises assorted schemes and scams that politicians and thieves prefer to keep concealed.
One scheme that Sue apparently is getting ready to disclose is an illegal eviction plot that two professionals who grew up in the hood, have hatched. Pilo (Pethuel Kimawachi), who is now a lawyer and brother of Lady T, and Situma (Anthony Mutuku), an engineer who master-minds the scheme to evict 500 Kibera residents.
It’s Lady T’s security guard husband Tajiri (Kelvin Manda) who gets wind of their selfish scam first. It’s also he who nearly gets killed as their way of keeping the eviction plan quiet until it’s too late for anyone, including Lady T, to do anything about it.
It’s a fascinating story as it’s set inside the slum and feels like it could reflect a real-life problem that slum dwellers face all the time. Unfortunately, last Sunday afternoon, the execution of the story was not nearly as clear-cut as this.
For one thing, we needed more character development. Too much seemed to be assumed. Too many of people’s backstories weren’t disclosed so that we didn’t understand the motivation for why some of the characters did what they did.
This is especially true for Lady T who is a pivotal character in the play. And yet we didn’t have a very clear sense of what exactly was her relationship to her community. That would have helped understand the way the story ends, especially to understand why she is blamed for the eviction notice and the disappearance of her friend Sue.
I don’t want to be a spoiler, but I found the ending most confusing. The letter she writes to Tajiri before she gets blamed for everything and thus, gets bumped off by a mob of angry neighbours, didn’t quite make sense. For it seems to have been written either from the grave or beforehand, in anticipation of the bad things she somehow knows are bound to come.
What is clear is that the letter is meant to be read by Tajiri after the two crooks get nabbed and the eviction averted. But how did she know she would be ‘sacrificed’ so that the ‘greater good’ would be achieved? How did she know her friend Sue was in danger for apparently disclosing the eviction plot in her blog. That is a whole other anomaly.
For while the play allows us to see how cruel and desperate the two crooks are, even to the point of torturing Tajiri, we cannot easily understand why Lady T has to assault her best friend, then drags her to an undisclosed destination.
It is easier to understand why Okocha (Simon Kimani) the neighbourhood plumber, is upset with Lady T.
He assumes, as do we, that Sue has died at the hand of her supposed friend. He has no qualms carrying her kicking out to meet the mob. What he doesn’t know (nor do we) is that Lady T knocked her best friend unconscious, not to kill her but supposedly to protect her. Her reasoning apparently was that if the crooks believed she was dead, she wouldn’t be in danger from them.
All these anomalies can be easily fixed. But one more reason it might be good to do so is the ending when Lady T returns to the stage to give voice to the words Tajiri is reading in her letter. This is the first time we get a clear idea of who the Lady is. But it’s a little late.
One thing that works well in ‘Before Dawn’ is making the stage into a sort of ‘split-screen’, with one side the Tajiri home, the other the office of the schemers. That way, the set changes were snappy and the story flowed.