Sarafina is a musical on experiences of South African students during apartheid.
Based on the popular movie, the stage production is for many Kenyans a nostalgic journey back into the 1990s when the movie was released. The audience sang along to songs such as Freedom is Coming Tomorrow and Sarafina’s rendition of the Lord’s Prayer.
The main tension in the play staged at Kenya National Theatre was that between Teacher Masumbuka’s and Sarafina’s drive for peace and the male students’ preference for violence. When Sarafina tells Miss Masumbuka of the students’ decision to physically attack their oppressors, she asks “Did you tell him there are other ways?” Sarafina answers “They asked, ‘what’?”
The most remarkable aspect of the play, directed by Stuart Nash of Nairobi Performing Arts Studio, was the acting. From the opening dance, certain actors’ personalities jump out. Fanuel Mulwa (Crocodile), in particular, wore a mohawk, a tie and a broad smile and his excitement was infectious.
This confidence in the entire cast was a great assurance to the audience that they would deliver throughout the musical.
A lot of effort was put into selecting props. Often, in between monologues by Sarafina (Brenda Wairimu), the stage transformed into a fantastical Oscar Awards ceremony, a street, a school parade ground, a burnt-down school, Miss Masumbuka’s house, a classroom, a church and even a jail.
The allusion to Mandela as a saviour in the way that Jesus was a saviour was unmistakable. They urge Mandela to come back in a song. Sarafina talks to Mandela about her wishes and her problems as one does in prayer. At the end of the play, when Sarafina says, “Nelson you’re not there, are you, you can’t hear your children crying but you can’t hear us.” It kind of sounds like a prayer in the bible in times of trouble.
When a student suggests to their teacher Miss Masumbuka that their play should be based on Jesus coming back, the class boos but when Sarafina suggests that it should be based on Mandela’s return, they all shout “yes”.
Mama Sarafina (Hellen Mtawali) brought colour into the play with flawless singing.
It was also funny to see how despite, for instance, the cast’s effort to learn a South African accent, certain Kenyanisms such as the exclamations “Ngai” and “Mtoto sura mbaya kama babake” and “Akia ang’ono” escaped from the cast’s mouth, especially Ms Mtawali’s. In fact, she sings in Swahili when she finds out her children are missing.
However, while I understood that her politics was moderate unlike her husband’s, I did not believe her calm reaction to the news of her children’s disappearance.
Other actors such as Duncan Kanili (Stimela) and Sybil Mukanutiye were also exceptional. China (Valentine Njeru) was a total pleasure to watch on stage even when she was in the background. She gossiped in class and mourned the death of her classmates hysterically.
Anybody going to watch Sarafina knows, of course, that it is not a story about sunshine and rainbows
Constable Sabela (Patrick Oketch) was actually on fire somehow and you could see him writhing. Additionally, there was a spark from the Lieutenant’s (Gilad Millo) fake gun as he shot at a student who had run down the aisle where the audience was, something that was jarring.
I had a lot of questions about the ending. What happened to the students? What happened to the love story between Crocodile and Sarafina? What was the alternative peaceful way that they continued to laud?
Although Sarafina is an old movie about the mistreatment of children, it remains relevant even in today’s world. “How fearful must they be that they shoot at you, children?” asks a character in the play.
In a world where immigrant children are detained, others committing suicide, while babies less than a year old, are clobbered by police during chaos, this, unfortunately, continues to resonate.