Kenya Schools Drama Festival is not the only place where one can watch theatre that reflects socially relevant ideas on stage in the shape of either satire, psychological drama or even comedy.
This past weekend we saw shows staged by brand new as well as well-established groups that not only performed scripts written by Kenyans such as John Sibi Okumu (Minister Karibu in Kikuyu), Justin Mirichii (Strangers by blood), Heartstrings (Hit and Run and Vipers in my Nest).
They also tapped into the public psyche to address themes as diverse as polygamy, dysfunctional families, corruption and even Opposition politics.
Heartstrings, in Hit and Run, tried hardest to be timely by touching on topics that are fresh and somewhat controversial. Starting in the home of Constantine (Mackyn Andale) and Joram (Nick Kwach) who are preparing for a weekend gathering, the show’s a giggle from the get-go.
Friends and family roleis explored as the conversation shifts swiftly from Cambridge Analytica and Miguna Miguna to teachers’ strikes, second wives and life-threatening hospital ‘mistakes’ (like not knowing the difference between appendix and male genitalia).
Heartstrings normally handles this juggling of ideas masterfully. But by Sunday afternoon, the cast still seemed slightly under-rehearsed. Director Sammy Mwangi made Nick and Mackryn start over twice when opening lines got flubbed. One felt the troupe is trying to do too much in too short a time.
But my main quibble is with the way polygamy is dealt with in the script. Yes, second wives (Zeitun Salat) can be witchy and first wives acquiescent. But generally, Heartstrings’ interpretation of this topic seemed too neutral for my taste.
The ‘other woman’ walking in the house and taking charge wasn’t treated as an affront to the first wife. Instead, Heartstrings made it look normal. What was abnormal was the cheating spouse accidentally losing his virility.
So for me, the group needs a bit more gender sensitivity. I loved Constantine’s friend (Cindy Kahuha) who fights back against the high-handed second wife. But I would have liked to see more of that sort of resistance and more insistence on a woman’s right to justice and equity.
In contrast, Back to Basics, Mbeki Mwalimu’s newly formed troupe, rolled out at Michael Joseph Centre with the mama (Mary Mwikali) ultimately taking a stand and saving her children (played by Alison Nyawira and Bilal Mwaura).
But even in Strangers by Blood, one feels (apart from the ending) that women are treated either as heart-broken children or baby-makers for a man who’d tried thrice to get kids.
But when the first three women failed to produce progeny, he does a Henry the Eighth and dumped them all.
Gilbert Lukalia’s character finally meets a bar maid (Mwikali) who gets pregnant after a short sprint of an affair. Her fertility leads him to marry her. But the kids have issues growing up with a dad who’s a dictator.
Gilbert is brilliant as the wealthy autocratic tyrant who agrees to see a family therapist since his daughter’s deeply distress after getting dumped by a deceitful white man.
The whole cast was superb as Mbeki is an exceptional director, having worked for years with Friends of Creative Arts.
It was Mbeki who came up with the idea of developing a play that deals with a dysfunctional family whose dad still believes that money and his manhood give him unbridled power to rule over his family.
It was also Mbeki who enlisted Justin Mirichii to create this amazing script, one that explores another side of contemporary Kenyan life that is unfortunately real.
But again, as with Hit and Run, my point is that men need to revise their self-image to adapt to changing norms, especially in relations between women and men.
In this regard, one can applaud both Tash Mitambo and John Sibi Okumu: Sibi for at least acknowledging that women can speak up and challenge the status quo, and Tash for seeing Sibi’s genius as a satirist and quickly translating his Minister Karibu into Kikuyu so he could stage it just a fortnight after he’d directed it in English.
The one production I didn’t see was Vipers in the Nest. But I watched Ray Cooney’s comedy, Run for Your Wife, directed by Eric Munore at Louis Leakey Auditorium and was impressed with Aga Khan Academy students’ excellent sense of comedic timing.
Finally, we’ll review Martin Kigondu’s What happens in the Night and Zippy Okoth’s One-Woman Show, which reopens tonight at PAWA254, next week.