Everything about Khweva players’ musical production of Black Monday blew me away! Everything from the graffiti-styled set design covered with vultures and pigs, and spray-painted in a style reminiscent of activists’ rebellion against the status quo, to the choral ensembles, high-energy choreography, live band whose music was composed and conducted by Caleb Wachira, to the political history that served as the basis for Munene Mwarania’s scripting of this extraordinary musical, was mind-blowing!
Black Monday, in spite of being about some of the darkest days during the Moi dictatorship was amazingly entertaining, upbeat and inspirational. But even more than that, it was most enlightening, particularly for those millennials in the audience who hadn’t lived through those hard times when spies for the State were everywhere and outspoken intellectuals disappeared — either fleeing for their lives into exile or getting grabbed and thrown into torturous conditions in the basement of Nyayo House.
There are critics of Kenyan theatre today who complain the only thing being staged these days is local comedy. But Khweva’s latest production defies that stereotype. There are comedic elements in Black Monday, of course, such as the role of Rabala (Rexxie Kamau), best friend and secret nemesis of Tito (Valiant Waiyaki), the popular student leader who has his heart set on staging a march to State House to air students’ grievances against the government. But even though Rabala seems to play the wily fun-loving fool, he’s actually a crafty anarchist who secretly believes the only way to bring about social change is by violent means.
Tito also advocates change, but through non-violence. He’s an idealist, but he is also a government minister’s son who wants to bring home a point to the man who’s in charge of ‘internal security’, namely his dad, that students want change now. They want democracy and the end of the tyranny that is widespread.
But Black Monday isn’t just about politics. There are romantic sub-plots and rivalries that the playwright masterfully interweaves into the larger story.
There’s Tito who shares his hopes and political aspirations with Selina (Foi Wambui), chairperson of the Christian Union who is also an outspoken advocate for change.
Her vice-chairperson Kombo (Anthony Miano) disavows student activism and Tito’s plan to march on State House, but he also has the hots for Selina which complicates his motives. Meanwhile, Rabala had a thing with Micere (Serene Ngetho), another strong woman leader who he’d recently broken up with.
Both Kombo and Rabala ultimately work against Tito, although for different reasons.
Kombo is a Judas who betrays Tito’s plan to march, squealing to the cops.
Meanwhile, Rabala has his own underground group of anarchists who believe they have a revolutionary role to play. They plan to disrupt Tito’s march and generate pure chaos, not because the march is too radical, but because it’s not radical enough.
The only confusing part of the show is what comes towards the end when the playwright decides to stage three different endings, one right after the other. I understood the first time, as Tito and the students marched to State House, the tear gas went flying and the cops grabbed Tito, the obvious leader of the march.
But then it wasn’t clear (in the second version) how Tito got ‘resurrected’ and the march took off all over again. One couldn’t help loving the exhilarating music, the harmonising voices and the rigorous well-choreographed dancing that showed the strength of the students’ desire for freedom of expression and the exercise of their full human rights. But then came the tear-gas, the chaos and Tito got nabbed again by the cops.
When Tito ‘rose again’ and started the march a third time, I suspect I wasn’t the only one who was confused. But confusion was quickly forgotten when a gun went off aimed in Tito’s direction. Only two people had a gun: Rabala and for some inexplicable reason, so did Tito’s sister Gakii (Anne Ogongo).
Since Black Monday is being restaged this coming Saturday and Sunday at Brookhouse School in Karen, I won’t spoil the ending by disclosing who did what. But I will say that I didn’t mind those few moments of confusion because the music, dancing and singing were superb. One had to be more impressed with the high-octane energy of this well-coordinated Khweva cast than Tito’s resurrection twice.
And just in case you didn’t get the gist of Black Monday, the evening’s MC reminded us there’s just as much need for change now as there was back then!