Whore From Ohio in Nairobi

(A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Nation on 22nd February 2009)

I would like to say that it was quite brave of Peter Mudamba to stage Hanoch Levin’s The Whore From Ohio in Nairobi, but, I suppose, with Nairobi’s theatre saturated with bedroom farce and FM stations prattling all day about sex, this should come as no surprise.

The play is about a beggar who, on his 70th birthday, wishes to spend his savings on the services of a prostitute. Although he fantasises about a rich prostitute from Ohio he settles for the street prostitute because this is all he can afford.

His son tries to make him see the folly of his actions. But the son also fantasies about his father being rich, having lots of money stacked in a bank account and (in Mudamba’s adaptation) 60% of Safaricom shares.

The two paint a pathetic picture of two men desiring things that are not even essential to life, so that one wonders whether their poverty is real, or imagined. It reflects the society we live in today, where people may feel poor if they cannot wear certain ‘labels’ or buy rounds of beer at the pub.

The play, like many of Levin’s, has triggered mixed reactions. When it was staged in New York about three years ago, Anita Gates in the New York Times described it as a “stylish but rather vulgar black comedy” while theatre critic Irene Backalenick said that she was “truly shocked, finding the piece outrageous and in very bad taste.”

I would say that Mudamba handled it as tastefully as the script would allow him. He used a wall to censor any scenes that may have been shocking or in bad taste.

The script was adapted to a Kenyan context so that the scene was set in Mathare, the currency was shillings and not shekels but the synagogue remained a synagogue, Mudamba obviously knowing how far to push controversy in Kenya.

Hanoch Levin was a controversial Israeli playwright and I was quite curious to see the reaction of a Nairobi crowd when the play showed at the Phoenix Theatre on 11th February.

Upon settling myself in the auditorium, I was greeted by a minimalist stage set with an expressionist rendition of Nairobi’s skyline for a backdrop. The crowd comprised mainly of young artistic types sprinkled with some theatre-going veterans of the “Levin’s-showing-at-the-Phoenix” kind but basically, the usual theatre crowd that won’t keep quiet even after the house lights have gone off.

In as much as audience participation is appreciated, people who laugh their heads off even when the joke is not that hilarious are rather disruptive. And whistling when Brontsatski (Florence Ng’endo) got on stage was not really necessary.

Directors ought to be stricter about these bad theatre habits. Just like a painter wouldn’t want someone to stick some chewing gum on his painting or smudge some fingerprints on it, so it is with a disruptive audience in the theatre. Latecomers, ringing mobile phones and chatter at the back of the auditorium ruin a director’s work of art.

Cassandra Louis did the lights and sound and I wondered if she was working under the direction Mudamba because they seemed to have no co-relation with the play whatsoever.

The house lights kept going off and on and we couldn’t tell if the play had started or not. It would have made more sense if the lights came on gradually when Hoibitter (Moses Macharia) comes into the auditorium to beg from the audience, and then gone off with a fade to mark the end of that scene.

The music in the background kept coming in and out with no apparent reason vis-à-vis the action on the stage. What made it worse was that it was not instrumental so the lyrics interfered with the actors’ words.

The play started off shakily with Macharia and Ng’endo fumbling with their words and after overcoming what seemed like stage fright, they fell into character and Ng’endo did take on her role quite well. Macharia suited his role by virtue of the fact that he is advanced in his years and stuttering over his words actually played to his advantage as it came across as an old man struggling a bit with his English, as old men tend to.

However, like most Kenyan directors, Mudamba still managed to turn black comedy into melodrama especially through the performance of Felix Odiwor who played the role of the beggar’s son, Hoimar.  It’s amazing how somehow, no matter how well written a script is, there always has to be some over-acting of the Vitimbi kind.

The script is funny in some parts and most jokes can come off (if the director trusts that his audience is intelligent enough) without the actors having to milk them out and blow them out of proportion.

The term melodrama is often used to describe acting that is exaggerated in gesture and emotion. It came about in the Victorian era when the theatres were crowded and the actors had to use conspicuous gestures and exaggerate emotion in order to be understood from the back of the auditorium.

Also, the theatregoers at the time cut across the social spectrum, so there were those on whom nuances of literature would be lost. The actor therefore had to really bring it out in order for them to understand what was going on.

Theatre directors in Kenya need to appreciate the acoustics that modern theatres have to offer and assume that they will be staging the play to an intelligent crowd. Or, at the very least, encourage their audience to do that bit of extra thinking.

Mudamba’s next production is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and this should be good theatre as far a mirror of society goes, if it is not dampened by melodrama and clichéd characters.

© Anne W. Manyara 2009

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