The history of theatre in Kenya goes back to the period immediately after World War II when a large influx of British ex-soldiers came to claim their reward for the war effort, under the auspices of the colonial office.
There was renewed optimism about settlement and adventure in Kenya. Although members clubs, cinema halls and other less noble dens of entertainment had existed since the early colonial period, theatre had lagged.
Annabel Maule in her book, Theatre Near the Equator, The Donovan Maule Story, recalls how her father Major Donovan Maule, docked at the port town of Mombasa in 1947, aboard SS Ascanius, with the singular dream of setting up a repertory theatre on the Equator.
Initially, Donovan and his wife Mollie, considered the doyens of repertory theatre in Kenya, staged matinee shows at the Theatre Royale (current Cameo Cinema) and travelled to Nakuru and Nyeri to entertain eager audiences. It was not until 1958 that they opened the Donovan Maule Theatre along Jackson Road (current Parliament Road).
The idea of a national theatre was mooted in 1949 when a steering committee made up of British and Indian settlers requested the colonial government to set up a venue where they could express themselves in drama, music and art. A year later the British government, responding to the call, launched a project for the construction of a national theatre.
A plot of land was provided by the government on Harry Thuku Road opposite the Norfolk Hotel and near the Central Police Station. From the outset, the understanding was that the theatre would be for the exclusive enjoyment of the European and Asian communities in Kenya and the choice of location was deliberate as Africans were not expected near the area.
Early signs of the Mau Mau rebellion had already begun to be felt, so the presence of a police station nearby would give theatre goers a sense of protection as well acting as a deterrent for any Africans who might be tempted to venture there.
Completed in 1951, the Kenya National Theatre (KNT) was incorporated under an Act of Parliament (Cap 218 of 1951). The building comprised a 450-seater hall, an orchestra pit, curtained stage and a balcony with a bar and restaurant where patrons could enjoy refreshments during breaks and after performances.
Playing to predominantly white audiences, KNT staged many western plays and musicals. In 1959 the National Schools Drama Festival was launched, modelled on the British drama festival for higher education and its social base lay with expatriate teachers, inspectors and staff of the British Council.
For many years, the national finals of the drama festival were held at KNT. In 1971, the production “Olkirkenyi”, by students of Olkejuado Secondary School became the first indigenous play to win the National Drama Festival at KNT.
The first notable African professional production was by Conrad Makeni of Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii’s play “I Will Marry When I Want” in 1982 which landed Ngugi wa Thiong’o in trouble with the authorities. The play was banned and from then on, KNT was viewed with cautious suspicion by the government and strange men were often to be seen lurking around listening surreptitiously to patrons at the balcony.
I remember the Balozi Productions of the musical “Pambazuka” at KNT in 1996 in which my daughter Njeri was the lead vocal. The play heralded a new beginning for Kenya and ran for weeks to packed houses because the theme resonated with many Kenyans from all walks of life.
In May 2003, the South African musical “Sarafina” was produced at KNT by Peter and Paul Oyier with an all-Kenyan cast, again playing to packed houses. The production was praised by Mbongeni Ngema and Leleti Khumalo of the original “Sarafina” production.
Unfortunately, over the years the management of KNT left a lot to be desired and the facility became run down. The parking lot was leased to a nearby hotel by day and it was claimed that by 2013 there were other nefarious activities going on at night under the supervision and monetary benefit of the night watchmen.
However, all was not lost as the government entered into a public private partnership with East African Breweries Ltd. in 2014 for the refurbishment of KNT under the Legacy Projects to celebrate 50 years of independence. The project was completed in 2015 at a cost of Sh150 million and the revamped facility was opened by President Uhuru Kenyatta, signaling political support of KNT.
The facility now stands as the premier venue for artistic and cultural drama with the most advanced equipment for theatrical productions in East and Central Africa.
There is a crop of new local talent in the theatre production industry who are keen to promote young actors and writers. Since the refurbishment in 2015, KNT has been the venue for wonderful productions including, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease and a re-run of Sarafina.
In September this year, KNT staged the smash hit Tinga Tinga Tales produced by London’s Claudia Lloyd and our very own songwriter Eric Wainana with an all-Kenyan cast.
Unlike Donovan Maule Theatre and Phoenix Players, which did not change with the times, preferring to remain exclusive and elitist clubs, KNT has come full circle with a modern theatre and a new business model based on a wider and inclusive reach drawing on young local talent.
No matter how much sponsors may be impressed by the quality of a production, they also must get mileage on their investment by reaching as a wide an audience as possible for their products or services.