Thespians transform Kenyan tales into musical theatre


(Left-right) Songstress Wanja Wohoro with Laura Ekumbo & Aleya Kassam in 'Weaver'. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Rarely does one have a chance to see so much outrageously creative Kenyan theatrical and musical talent in performances staged on a single day.

But that’s exactly what I witnessed last Wednesday afternoon at The Elephant in Lavington.

The occasion was the culmination of a fortnight of intense artistic activity under the banner of the Third Edition of the NBO Musical Theatre Initiative Workshop.

And while none of the 15 original musical theatre scripts were completed by Wednesday, from the look of what was performed by each group of core creatives, one could still see electrical sparks fly as artistic energies came alive in every performance.

As every group was allocated just 15 minutes to perform, one got a tantalising taste of musical versions of original scripts by everyone from Mugambi Nthiga, Wacuka Mungai, Bryan Ngartia and John Sibi-Okumu to Aroji Otieno, Sitawa Namwalie, Aleya Kassam, Laura Ekumbo and Anne Moraa to name just a few of the writers. It was beautiful to see how well the genius musicians blended with the writers to create a diverse fusion of lyrical styles and sounds.

The musicians included Eric Wainaina and his talented team, Teddy Mwangi, Chris Adwar, Victor Kimeto, Stuart Nash and the incredible tabla drummer Rashab Nandha. But the women songwriter-singers assembled were equally impressive. They were Barbara ‘Sage’ Ng’eno, Wanja Wohoro, Wacuka Mungai and Lydia Owano Akwabi. Sitawa Namwalie assembled an exceptional musical team that played both modern and indigenous instruments.

They included obokano player Grand Master Maseke, oruti players Pius Shaki Aloyo and Odada Okuto as well as Mike Munene and Manases Waweru. Then too, the genres being developed were also diverse. They went from children tale (Don’t Turn Out the Lights), gangster crime (Bandassary and The Escape), biography (Weaver Bird: Field Marshall Muthoni and Kabaseke), and autobiography (Zaphan) to corruption run rampant in both church (Three-Ten and DJ Lwanda) and State (Akenya), interracial love (Pani Puri), science fiction (Rambo Bambo Boom) and identity issues (Nairobae and Moonlight) among others.

The most charming performance for me was the enchanting children’s story, Don’t Turn Out the Lights. It was based on Mwendwa Mbugua’s children’s book, adapted as a stage musical by Mwendwa, Tina Nduba-Banjo and Kanji Mbugua. The sci-fi fantasy Rambo Bambo Boom, which was based on Christina Banja’s book, was as engaging as it was far-fetched and fantastically funny.

In fact, there were several other semi-serious yet amusing musical scripts by Kenyan creatives making fun of their fellow Kenyans (which is one of the reasons the initiative is so impressive and unprecedented: All the stories are by and about Kenyans).

They included scripts like Pani Puri (a black-brown love comedy) and Bandassary by Too Early for Birds based on their previous play, and The Escape by Sitawa.

All three scripts are based on serious topics, namely interracial relations and crime. But inevitably, the scriptwriters and musicians are so imaginative they could hardly avoid blending humour into their storyline and sound.

There were also sobering stories exquisitely told, like Nairobea by Aroji Otieno with beautiful music and lyrics by Barbara ‘Sage’ Ng’eno, Moonlight by Eric and Wacuka Mungai, Kabaseke about the acclaimed Congolese guitarist who’s currently in jail, and John Sibi-Okumu’s Akenya about injustice in present-day Kenya, which is scripted by Sibi and scored by his two musical sons, Jacob and Jason who are both abroad.

What’s thrilling about this project is that it’s based on the realisation that not only do we have brilliant storytellers among us; but Kenyans’ life stories are also exceptional.

For instance, the Brazen playwrights Aleya, Laura and Anne are devising a script about the Mau Mau’s one female Field Marshall, the marvelous Muthoni Kirimi. Meanwhile, Bandassary is based on the lives of notorious Kenyan gangsters Wacucu and Wanugu. Three-Ten is based on a real life Kenyan pastor who fleeced his flock with a mesmerising scam that the flock bought. Meanwhile, Elsaphan Njora tells his own story lyrically with musically support from Tim Arinaitwe.

Asking the artistes when their productions will be complete, they can only predict that mid-2020 is the probability. But given the progress made during the workshop, several of the shows could be done sooner.

One big incentive to artistes’ productivity was the presence of dramaturg Roberta Levitow and Prof Fred Carl of New York University’s Graduate Writing Programme. Both are professional thespians whose daily encouragement spurred the creatives to give their all artistically. And it showed.