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Art

Biko tales in ‘Breathe 2’ are both haunting and hilarious

Most of Breathe 2 cast
Most of Breathe 2 cast. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU  

Breathe 2’, Back 2 Basics’ second original creation of a stage play based on the stories by the Kenyan journalist and man-about-town, Jackson Biko, was very different from the first Breathe, staged at the same venue, Alliance Francaise, several months ago.

All the actors’ performances were still strong, but the show as a whole lacked the pizzazz impact of the original play.

It’s the plight of many a ‘sequel’ — a label the show’s conceptualiser Mbeki Mwalimu would undoubtedly reject.

The expectations have been set high by the first version, but it’s rare that they are ever met. Such was the case with Breathe 2, which had much in common with Breathe 1. It just felt slightly belaboured, as if Mbeki’s most favoured Biko tales had already been seen the first-time round.

There were many positive correlations between the two shows nonetheless. Both derive from the genius storytelling of Biko who supposedly writes his stories based on actual people and incidents that he encounters in his everyday life.

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Both featured stories that Mbeki selected to create a chiaroscuro effect, placing light short skits side by side of dark, at times lugubrious stories.

And both had outstanding casts, omitting a few from the first round such as Gilbert Lukalia, Bilal Mwaura and Martin Githinji, who was on stage next door in Sarafina. But who came on stage in their place were two of Nairobi’s finest actors, Ian Mbugua, formerly famed for being the boss at the late Phoenix Players and Brian Ogola — who recently knocked our socks off playing the title role in the new Kenyan film, Lusala.

Director Nick Ndeda maximised on their acting chops, giving Ian the anchor role twice in his Man Moment and Brian as the grieving widower in ‘The Duke of Gatanga’.

Plus Back 2 Basics can never go wrong with its regular cast, including Wakio Mzenge, Brian Munene, Mwikali Mary and Wanjiku Mburu who was especially good as the woman who’d been in a head-on collision and had a complete facial and body make-over.

What is a constant feature about Back 2 Basics’s cast is their consistent ability to literally throw themselves into their characters such that even if one had a problem with any one of the graphic (occasionally gory) stories or the light satiric skits, you can still be awed by the acting which was excellent.

Ian’s Man Moments had to be two high points of the show, especially when Nick cast two strong women, Mwikali Mary and Back 2 Basics newcomer Ikalakela Milimu, as two guys messing around in the men’s locker room!

There was only one weird moment in the second Man Moment — it’s when two figures appeared behind the would-be lovers, played by Brian Ogola and Wambui Murimi.

One guesses the two (played by Bruce Makau and Wanjiku Mburu), dressed in solid gold kaftans and pink-winged specs were the psyches of the two lovers, but it was slightly far-fetched.

What Mbeki did well was select stories that at times were either gory or glorious, macabre or mirthful, poignantly painful or pleasantly playful.

The main issue I had with Breathe 2 came towards the end of the play. Wakio’s heart-wrenching story of Mai Mai murders, group rapes and cannibalism could have been curbed, although one can never get too much of the actress. What didn’t quite work was the miming of the gory scenes behind a bed-sheet so we saw shadows and silhouettes, not the actual terrorism.

The other story that could have been edited slightly was that of Wanjiku’s tale of reconstructive surgery. But what was fascinating about that scene was Bruce Makau’s journalistic character which seemed so ‘Biko-like’.

Certainly, his man had the curiosity of a tenacious reporter who wanted to hear all the graphic details which Wanjiku gave him unashamedly.

The scenario that best revealed Biko’s uncanny attention to detail, as well as what one assumes was the writer’s own experience of globetrotting by air, was the YouTube scene in which three flight attendants had delightful mini-stories to tell.

The only quibble I had with the scene was the flagrantly stereotypic (even racist) observations. But as they were based on the flight attendants’ first-hand experiences, one can hardly deny that some people are two-faced, hard to please, picky, pushy, annoying and occasionally cool.

In short, Breathe 2 had some wonderful moments but the emotional aftermath of the show was hard to handle viscerally.

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