Playwright tackles relationships theme with her first musical

Melissa (right) with her daughter and mom.
Melissa (right) with her daughter and mom. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

Grace Mercy Muruthi is a blossoming playwright to be reckoned with as we saw early this week when her first musical, Melissa, premiered at the Michael Joseph Centre.

Directed by Joseph Ochieng, her fellow Talanta Institute performing arts lecturer, Muruthi took a risk in giving her first play to be performed by a young cast who are also her students at the Institute.

Yet Muruthi wasn’t let down by either Rhoda Memusi who took the title role, or Philip Muoki, Melissa’s sweetheart, Dave, who’s in love with Melissa, but only conditionally as it turns out.

The rest of the cast, including Melissa’s friends and David’s family, were all committed to their roles. But two key players who didn’t have huge parts in the play are pivotal and mutually provide a moral compass that will turn the tide in Melissa life.

They are the Cucu (played by Eva Wangari) and Melissa’s little girl (Nelly Wambaire). Cucu, Melissa’s mother is adamant against her daughter wasting herself by returning to wedding plans with Dave. Clearly, she has heard about his physical abuse of her child. She undoubtedly has also heard about his typically male attitude of not wanting another man’s child in his life. It’s an attitude that compels many Kenyan women to either conceal their child’s existence from the prospective spouse or stick with the child and leave the man, as Melissa eventually does.

Cucu also knows that once a man lifts a finger against his woman, he can easily do it again. So she protests against Melissa’s departure with Dave once he comes home to their village and woos her back into his life.

She is deeply concerned for her daughter’s safety and generally disapproves of the man. Melissa doesn’t listen, however.

That’s where the other key player in the show comes in. It’s Melissa’s unnamed daughter that ultimately turns the tide on her mom’s decision to wed or not. Yet just as in Zippy Okoth’s two installments of the Diary of a Divorced Woman (both staged earlier this year), it takes the woman way too long to admit to herself that she need not tolerate the abuse she receives from her man.

In Zippy’s case, the abuse went on even longer than Melissa’s. But it would seem that both playwrights, Mercy and Zippy sought to portray the plight of women in relationships with men who apparently feel free to clobber the women closest to them.

In Zippy’s case, the woman was beaten even though she was the mother of the man’s child. But that didn’t seem to bother Ricky, her spouse.

Fortunately, Melissa chooses to get out of what might have led to more domestic abuse by not showing up at the wedding. Nonetheless, she had already been hit by Dave more than once and it seemed Melissa was willing to suffer that fate again just so she could become ‘Mrs. Dave’.

In an interview prior to the show’s opening, Muruthi had noted she had felt compelled to write Melissa because she knew too many single mothers who were willing to sacrifice their dignity, physical well-being and potentially, even their lives just so they could have a man, ideally a husband living with them. They wanted the status more than the security, which Mercy felt was wrong.

“I wanted Melissa to show that single mothers could make it on their own. They don’t have to believe that life would be better with a man, any man, with them,” said Mercy.

Ultimately, Melissa the musical achieves her aim. However, it was something of a surprise when, at the last minute (on opening night), she absents herself from the wedding. We had just seen her in her wedding gown so we, along with Dave and his uncle (Joseph Gakure) we were confused when she didn’t show.

Up until then, Melissa had looked like she was just like the other women willing to go all the way into wedlock in spite of their knowing they might be putting themselves in harm’s way.

In subsequent shows, Melissa’s daughter shows up with the Cucu when Melissa’s all dressed and set for the big event. But her heart melts at the sight of her child and the realisation she might lose their precious bond once she marries Dave. So she makes the fateful choice to cancel out.

It’s a surprise ending but it works. It also fulfills Muruthi’s plan the write a play that wakes up both women and men.