Long Gone University Days

(This review appeared in the Sunday Nation on 5th April 2009)

It is an interesting coincidence that while Kenyatta University students ran amuck on Sunday 29th March, The Night Before by Nigerian playwright Bode Sowande was showing at the French Cultural Centre.

Sowande’s inspiration to write this play was the killing of a student, Kunle Adepeju, by police, at the University of Ibadan in 1971. The play however, is set in Lagos where six students hold a small party the night before their graduation ceremony. Their conversation is a reminiscence of their campus days, which they bring to life by enacting the events they found most memorable.

The most notable of these scenes recalls a protest at the university that led to the death of one of the students. Such is the effect of stylised theatre, that with choreographed movement and gestures, four actors make us believe that they are a whole crowd of rioting students. “We protest!” they shout and Nibidi (Sam Kihiu) explains: “We did not know what we were protesting about.” When Nibidi narrates, we are at the party by the bonfire and when Moye (Chomba Njeru), Moniran (Sam Psenjen), Dabira (Andronico Otieno) and Ibilola (Maryanne Nungo) chorus “Zebra power!” we are at the demonstration in the university campus. In a flash, they turn around and march and now they are the riot police. They face the audience and they are the protesting students again. Gunshots are heard and “hell breaks loose”. They are all squirming on the floor, blocking blows from riot police we cannot see but who we believe to be present. Then in unsion they pick up imaginary dust and say “ashes to ashes…” and the story ends with the burial of the dead comrade.

This is the stuff that makes true theatre. Bode Sowande prefers that his plays are performed without an intermission so that they have as great an impact on the audience as possible and this one did.

It’s a play about blind, youthful zeal and passion; About a young nation torn between an educated elite hungering for reform and progress and an old guard stuck in the exploitative colonial ways.

But it none-the-less brings to mind a time when scholars were scholars; When the desire to learn and to understand was aflame. A time that seems long gone, in the face of the senselessness that was manifested at Kenyatta University on that Sunday.

The lighting, sound effects and general mise-en-scene reflected an admirable attention to detail on the part of the director, Moturi Kebaya. Psenjen had a rather Shakespearean elocution though not untoward but Andrew Muthure was more natural. Njeru did a good Nigerian accent and when a drunk man from the audience climbed on to the stage and sprawled himself upon it, Njeru got him off the stage without falling out of character and without changing the sense of the play. Maryanne Nungo got completely into the emotion of her character and shed real tears. Quiet for most of the time, she portrayed a tall and confident Ibilola so that it was a bit of a contradiction that she should fiddle with her skirt like a schoolgirl when her affair with Onita (Muthure) comes to light.

The play ends with a poignant image, when Dabira burns his academic gown. If we want to define African theatre, then this would be a good start. Undone Theatre Project’s next production is the sequel, Farewell to Babylon, which will run from 4th – 7th June 2009. And if you like to go to the theatre wearing your thinking cap, then it would be worth marking these dates in your diary.

© Anne Manyara 2009

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