Seating through the sweltering heat at the Aga Khan high school hall in Mombasa last week, one thing was crystal clear; Kenyan theater has come of age.
All the decorum, well scripted plays, young confident actors and modern day themes addressed left not an iota of doubt in my mind that finally, Kenyan playwrights have washed their proverbial hands and are now ready to dine with literary kings of Shakespearian likeness.
A Keen follower of the current affairs in the country would notice that most of the themes tackled at the drama festivals were contemporary. Words like ‘ni Kama ndrama, Kama findeo ’ and ‘wainganjo’ were frequently used much to the charm of the crowd which roared with laughter and glee.
This however, would have struck a nerve with renown American poet and professor Billy Collins who argues that writers should desist from using fad dialects or making reference to contemporary culture because with time this will make the writers work dated and hence drastically reduce the shelf life of the piece of work.
Various contemporary themes were well tackled by the crop of actors amongst them :
Drug abuse. This was best illustrated through two plays and a solo verse. Menengai High school’s ‘ the docker’ creatively set at sea, tells the story of a rich foreign drug lord, ‘Octopus’ whose ship is about to dock . Octopus’ has two lovers. One is a high school girl who spends most of her time on social media chatting with him. (She later discovers he is her biological father.) The older lover, who sells drugs for Octopus, turns out to be the school girls’ mother
The other play on the theme was ‘Bishop Gatimu’s ‘Search for Anaconda’ in which a rich high ranking official who is a drug trafficker, implicate his helpless juniors as he goes scot-free.
Moi Girls’ Nairobi’s solo verse, ‘My director’, powerfully told the story of a youth who, neglecting good advice, indulges in drug abuse in order to gain fame and prosperity.
The disintegrating modern family was a topic well illustrated through Kakamega High schools’ hilarious play, ‘One More Case’. In this story, after years of rejecting his family, an absentee father shows up in his child’s life. The child, driven to the brink of insanity by loneliness and lack of mentorship; and desperate for acceptance, joins a gang which introduces him to drugs. Unfortunately, he commits an act which could lead him to spending a life time in jail, or worse still, lead to a death sentence .
Ngere High school charmed the crowd with ‘the skirt’ an emotional play which heavily borrows from former Minister Mutula’s short skirts drama . It advocates for bridging of the communication gap between school administrations’ and students through dialogue instead of strikes, strict rules and suspensions
Unfair distribution of jobs and tribalism was tackled by Butere Girls in their infamous play ‘shackles of doom’ which attracted a mammoth crowd , periodical uproars and a standing ovation from the bewildered chanting crowd.
Peer pressure and erosion of morals in society was well handled by Laiser Hill, in their well choreographed play ‘ a funeral in heaven’ whereas The Kenya Institute of Mass Communication tackled power transitional dilemmas in their classic ‘Expandables in 3D’.
The fight for resources like land and water causes pain to both communities fighting. This was smartly tackled by Alliance Girls in their play ‘Do unto me’ which handled this theme in a delicate and intriguing way
The plight of the Girl child even in the modern day was tackled in the delightful ‘Delta of Turmoil’ by the Riara Springs. It is the story of a young girl Sanaipei’ whose future hangs on a balance when she is forced to choose between further studies abroad and marriage to a rich old man. The story, artfully told, kept the audience at the edges of their seats.
The crooked police unit and human greed were addressed in the hilarious but realistic play ‘Acts of Subterfuge’ by Nairobi Aviation College. A traffic police, wrongfully deployed to the anti-riot unit in the city, has to contend with his wife who is a hawker. He is torn in between and together with his wife, they craft a way to get out of the stalemate and this includes buying miracles.
Kisii University invokes the spirit of Achebe in fighting for the teachers rights in a solo verse ‘Unoka’ which delves into the teachers plight of poor payment by comparing teachers to Okonkwos’ father Unoka who was a very poor man in the book Things Fall Apart.
Through this week of theatre, I couldn’t help but notice that the high school plays were of better quality than most University ones. This can be accredited to the fact that up until now, many high schools have outsourced professional playwrights to script and even direct their plays.
A chat with university drama students revealed that most universities do not support drama in their institutions. When I exclaimed disbelief at the very poor quality of a play by a private university, a student from the institution was quick to point out that the script was poor because it was written by a fellow student who lacked support from the university administration. I was left wondering whether good scripting is made up of pure talent or a supportive administration.
Even with the close of the celebrated festivals a few questions linger in my head.
With Thursdays’ ban of external playwrights in high schools, what quality of plays we are likely to see at the nationals come 2014?
Since some universities are unwilling to support drama clubs, could it be true that the modern higher learning institution is more bent on profit making than on producing respected thinkers and scholars.
With the coming out of unafraid controversial playwrights, could this be the renaissance of the Kenyan Theatre we have been awaiting for so long?
The writer is a teacher, trainer and blogger at http://www.glominage.wordpress.com twitter@mwanigaminage