Written on the Body, by Andia Kisia, directed by Mugambi Nthiga and produced by Sheba Hirst is a tour de force, a production unprecedented for its blazing honesty mixed with searing horror, ironic humour and wit.
It’s a horror derived from a history too many Kenyans forget. That could be why Kisia chose to create a series of unforgettable vignettes that blend poetry and powerful portraits which are often painfully poignant as they depict a past and present that has never before been framed in such a daring and provocative way.
Put simply, her portraits reveal a Kenyan history of oppression and resistance. Putting them all into one play means they are abbreviated, like snapshot moments in time that reflect a wider truth that you may have to go home and research yourself. But before you do, you’ll have to appreciate the way Andia uses poetry to evoke emotions and embody a whole epoch in a single scene.
Fortunately, her cast is filled with poets who understand the beauty of brevity. They are also such good actors that they easily and credibly switch from one role to another, often playing antithetical characters.
For instance, an actor like Joseph Wairimu can start as an angry ‘slave’, then become a naive schoolboy being trained by Marianne Nungo (who subsequently becomes a Judge) to slash-and-slaughter fellow Kenyans in the pre-and post-election violence days.
Someone like Elsaphan Njora can shift from being a bored mortician tired of counting dead bodies following the 1982 failed coup to becoming a relentless interrogator of those who resisted the oppressive Moi era of the 80s and 90s.
One theatregoer told me he thought the play was too violent. “Why couldn’t there have been a few good things about Kenya in the play?” he asked. The playwright wasn’t there to answer, but the lay-critic had to admit that every scene reflected actual elements of Kenyan history.
‘Written on the body’ goes all the way back to the Arab slave trade and colonial hut tax times. It takes us into a Mau Mau concentration camp where violence was the order of the day and even into what looked like the basement of Nyayo House where torture was also tragically commonplace.
Some vignettes might seem difficult to situate in time. But that would be only if the viewer hadn’t been keeping track of the strategies used by powers-that-be to retain place even when it meant violating Kenyan people’s human rights.
For instance, the slave trader (Abu Sense) used the African sycophant (Ngartia Bryan) to interface with the captured Africans who are being bought and sold.
It’s a similar strategy to what the coloniser used by training African home guards to betray their own people and abuse them in countless ways. For instance, there’s one scene in which a ‘gakunia’ (hooded informer) identifies Mau Mau freedom fighters for the Home Guards. The cruelty of the deed is implicit, but so is the cowardice.
The play doesn’t only dwell on the past. Nor are the torture tactics only physical. In more recent times, we meet two women civil servants (Shivishe Shivisi & Mercy Mutisya) out to torture a fellow Kenyan (Akinyi Oluoch) who’s been out of the country for years, but now has come home wanting a Kenyan ID. The two women amuse themselves by taunting and playing games with the young woman. They insult her with glee and finally refuse her application as they exercise their petty power.
In the Moi era, the courts were often used to process innocents as well as dissidents. In one stance, two university students (Ngartia and Gitura Kamau) have been arrested and charged with treason and espionage. The treasonous deed is reading too long in the university library. The espionage charge derives from the student’s walking past the Libyan embassy and being deemed an agent of a foreign government. A scene like this is spiced with absurdist wit to make one laugh at what one might prefer to think was fiction. But no, episodes such as these actually happen and Kenyans suffer as a consequence.
The portraits of women were mixed, but again, their variety embodies the acuity of Kisia’s eye for seeing the ways of ordinary Kenyans. But the lens through which she views her people is clear-eyed yet unforgiving.
The beauty of Written on the body is that it leaves its indelible mark on your mind, compelling one to seek a deeper grasp of the country’s present and past.