Powerful musical revisits East African slave trade

Well-choreographed cast of Albatross. PHOTO |
Well-choreographed cast of Albatross. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WAGACHERU 

The Youth Theatre of Kenya (YTK) only became a legal entity a few months back. But it’s been the dream of the group’s co-founders, especially Mime Mutahi and Jazz Moll, ever since they were invited, as part of a Braeburn School production, to perform at the International Youth Arts Festival in London in 2013.

“That was when we got to see shows by the National Youth Music Theatre of UK, and decided we could create something comparable in Kenya,” said Rohan Canney-Davison, another YTK co-founder and one of the cast members who was in both that 2013 production, Kesho Amahoro (‘Peace is Coming’ in Rwandese) and Albatross, Wings of Freedom, the musical production that was staged late last month at Braeburn Theatre, directed by none other than Ms Mutahi and Mr Moll.

Both plays are original scripts by Braeburn’s former music teacher Lizzie Jago. And both musical scores were composed by another former Braeburn teacher, Anna Rusbatch. Both women are also YTK cofounders.

“All the cast and crew of Albatross were Kenyan youth (between the ages of 11 and 21),” explains Ms Jago, who continues to serve as the group’s artistic director.

Speaking to the Business Daily a few minutes before Albatross opened last weekend but one, Ms Jago is clearly proud of the youth company that she helped to build and train. She is also quick to give them credit for now doing everything themselves, from the lights, sound, make-up and costuming to the choreography, directing and acting.

The show that got her students an invitation to the International Youth Arts Festival, Kesho Amahoro is based on a true story personally witnessed by Jago, according to Sue Canney-Davison, another co-founder of YTK.

Set in a refugee camp in Tanzania in the 1990s soon after the horrific Rwanda genocide, it’s about four siblings who managed to escape the genocide but found another set of trials in the camp.

“At the time, the UN policy was to split up refugee families, but the four siblings chose to defy that rule, stick together and eventually managed to affect change in the policy,” says Ms Jago. “Now refugee families can stay together, but it cost one of the children’s life.”

The success of that show led to a second invitation to the Festival in 2014 as well as to a crystallisation of their dream.

“We now knew for certain that we wanted to create a (training ground) for Kenyan youth across the country to gain the skills and experience to go professional,” said Rohan who describes YTK as being a sort of ‘stepping stone’ to prepare Kenyan youth to work in professional theatre.

The professionalism of YTK was obvious when the troupe (numbering 70) put on Albatross, another true story, only this time it was about the East African slave trade and the struggle by the Anglican Bishop Charles Smythies to bring an end to the heinous and inhumane practice.

Sent as a missionary

Set in Zanzibar where Smythies was sent as a missionary in the 1880s, Ms Jago weaves a heart-wrenching story about the cruelty of the slave trade and the role Smythies played working closely with the local people to liberate slaves whose ships were destined for the Middle East.

Albatross is also about a family split by poverty and a courageous daughter’s quest to find her sailor-father whom she discovers working on a slaver’s ship, the only job that he could find.

Accompanied by the Kenya National Youth Orchestra, which was founded by its conductor Levi Wataka, these young musicians performed beautifully as did the cast. The most soulful solo voices were those of Caeli Kean (as Emily, the little girl who went looking her father) and Miriam Nyokabi, the Bishop’s head house maid.

The choreography was also well-coordinated, even as it often featured nearly all 70 cast members on stage at once.

And the script’s story line sensitively blended tragedy and human hardship with touches of humour and the good Bishop’s vision and mission to liberate all slaves and bring the trade to an end for good.

Albatross conveys a powerful human rights message without heavy-handed religiosity. In fact, quite the contrary: while the Bishop was kind-hearted, his choice of Cecil to be the first African ordained by the church was surprising since he was conflicted, even unforgiving towards the slavers, having formerly been a slave himself.

Nonetheless, Albatross conveys a powerful message, ending with a reminder by YTK’s chairman Ben James, that slavery still exists in our time and still requires our attention to eradicate it as best we can.