Jackson Biko must be feeling quite pleased with himself. He might be just slightly humbled by the handiwork of Mbeki Mwalimu, Gilbert Lukalia and the whole cast of Breathe: Stories of [you guessed it] Jackson Biko.
How else might a man feel when one of the best theatre ensembles in Nairobi just breathed fresh life into characters that you had managed to draw in such vivid and vibrant language that these gifted thespians felt compelled to act?
That cast of nine, including director Lukalia (who was the first to become your clone at Alliance Francaise last weekend) resurrected black and white pages of people (whom you presumably knew) and made them into beings possibly more real, colourful, funny and sometimes sad than the originals probably were.
They even worked the great wonder of bringing the dead back to life. Many of the followers of your blog, bikozulu.co.ke, are already well acquainted with Bradley, the little boy who tragically got run over by school bus.
But it was the deeply touching performance of the boy’s grieving dad (played by Lukalia) who brought Bradley’s memory back to life even as we felt the father’s pain tingle through our own bones.
As if that was not enough, the Back to Basics cast compelled us to sit attentively for nearly three hours as they became you! They dramatised words exclusively written by you but carefully selected and re-assembled by Mbeki Mwalimu and then directed brilliantly by Lukalia.
“It was Gilbert’s idea to have everyone be Biko,” says Mbeki, who was first to see how well Biko’s stories could play on stage. But she adds that it was a collaborative effort on the part of the whole cast (including Bilal Mwaura, Bokeba Mbotela, Daisy Temba, Martin Githinji, Mary Mwikali, Nick Ndeda, Wakio Mzenge, Wanjiku Mburu and Gilbert of course) that can be held responsible for holding us all that long.
It was their blending of hilarious ensemble scenes with solo storytelling like the soulful one of the cancer-survivor shared by Wakio Mzenge that made B2B’s performance most memorable.
And just when, after more than two and a half hours, our attention began to flag, B2B brought out Biko’s wonderfully irreverent tale of two cultures funeral arrangements.
Now anyone familiar with the ways of Luo and Kikuyu funerals knows they are very different. What made Biko’s interpretation of those differences so devastatingly funny was the way he got into the heads of both camps. The result was a hilarious scramble of unspeakable insults that left us laughingly aghast, but also alive to the genius and utility of truth-telling.
The truth is people are different, but so what! We may feel that our way is the best, but by Biko’s and B2B’s showing that’s just how people feel, that knowledge brings tolerance, which is what the world needs a lot more of in this day and age.
And, tonight, we’ll see another set of real life stories, only this time Wamama wa Mathree will be about a phenomenon that is both new and old in Nairobi.
What’s new is seeing women matatu conductors. They have been around, but are relatively rare. But they definitely have stories to tell, and that’s what the show is all about.
What’s old is the trials that women face when they step out into the world, especially a world where men dominate and also see women as easy prey, not people of equal value, intellect and entitlement to move about without harassment or assault by dogs, thieves or fellow workmates.
Scripted by Caroline Odongo, the show is based on stories she’s given by matatu women. The women have been working closely with an NGO called the Flone Initiative which is concerned with women’s rights.
Those same women will be part of the cast. But the lead characters will be played tonight and tomorrow at Alliance Francaise by four outstanding women actors. There’s the award-winning actress Marrianne Nungo, plus Pauline Kyalo whose star just shone in Walter Sitati’s ‘Necessary Madness’. Majuma Bahati is also in the cast along with Michelle.
Kennedy Ogutu, the only male in ‘Wamama wa Mathree’ promises to hold his own as he and the women are directed by Veronica Waceke.