(A version of this review appeared in the East African August 9-15 under the title ‘Role Play’ Gives African Drama a Distinctive Point of Reference)
There are two points to consider when reflecting on African drama – the form and the content. The distinguishing feature of African drama, in its form, is that there is no distinction between the performer and the audience.
However, theatre as we know it today, where an audience sits and watches a group of performers, is essentially a European form and the efforts made to ‘Africanise’ theatre focus on the content, rather than the form.
The content in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s and Ngugi wa Mirii’s Ngahika Ndeeda (I Will Marry When I Want) is African- it is written in Kikuyu and it is about Kikuyu characters trying to adjust to life as Kenyans after independence.
Its form on the other hand, which has the classic three-act episodic structure, is European. Certainly, writing the play in Kikuyu enabled the playwrights to express their ideas more poignantly and, not surprisingly, it is the performance of this play in 1977 that led to wa Thiong’o’s detention without trial and eventual self exile.
This European form of Drama, where the subject matter is human beings being presented by living people, has such appeal, that African writers have adapted it as a means of exploring and expressing African ideas. It also has such force that, in adapting it, many African playwrights like wa Thiong’o have caused great political agitation, because of it’s ability, possibly more than any other art form, to expose the truths of a society.
Theatre has been and still is a means of defining our identity as Africans, while exploring and examining our human existence, which is why history is a very dominant theme in the works of many African writers and writers of African origin around the world.
The American playwright August Wilson claims, “to write is to forever circle the maps, marking it all down, the latitude and longitude of each specific bearing, giving new meaning to something very old and very sacred- life itself.”
This is what John Sibi-Okumu has done in his play Role Play, which I watched at Phoenix Theatre on July 22 2010, one of the few times in Nairobi that I have watched a play that has entertained me and moved me and disturbed me, all at the same time.
Mzee Juma, (Andrew Muthure) residing in his son’s house because of his deteriorating health muses about the life he has lived. He is haunted and tormented by his thoughts- memories of various events of his life, which are closely linked with events of the first three decades of independent Kenya.
He is a quintessential character, who impersonates the generation that took over power from the colonialists, whose education in the finest British institutions ill-fits the African values and traditions they claimed to defend. When speaking to Dudu Smith (Lydia Githachu), Mzee Juma says, “we Africans are stupid. Yes, and the sooner we realise it, the better.” But to his daughter Jennifer (Angie Mwandanda) he admits, “there was a time I had so much power, that I believed it was my right to abuse it.”
He remembers the killings of such political figures as Tom Mboya, J.M. Kariuki and Robert Ouko, and regrets how he “lied about the most miserable things which I myself saw and of which I was a major part of.” He is terribly ashamed of having “successfully seduced his son’s eighteen-year-old girlfriend.” He finds peace only in recalling his childhood, wishing “that he was a little boy, all over again.”
Jennifer, who in some way is Mzee Juma’s antagonist, represents the next generation of postcolonial Kenya, trying to cope with an identity crisis by changing her name to Amandla and telling Dudu Smith, who she calls an “inbred K.C.” that she should pack up and return to her country.
The play addresses many contemporary issues in Kenya, like religion, unhappy marriage, Kenyans living abroad who cannot attend their parents’ funerals due to “circumstances beyond their control”, nationalism and African identity, rural-urban divide, and unemployment, against a background of a multiracial Kenyan society.
Despite their racial differences, the three married women have one thing in common, and that is being in lonely marriages. Linda Juma (Jay Marburger), Mzee Juma’s daughter-in-law, recalls her husband telling her, “It was a mistake marrying you, and everyday, I live to regret it!”
Dudu, while contemplating if she really is “the semi-alcoholic gin and tonic swilling wife of a tour operator” calls to mind her husband telling her, “Once you’ve tasted black, there is no turning back.”
Rupti Shah (also played by Lydia Githacu), who confides a traumatic incident that her family endured during the 1982 attempted coup hopes that her husband “doesn’t pick up some lady of the twilight on Koinange Street” on his way home from korogaring curries with his friends.
The play Ngahika Ndeeda also addresses issues of post-colonial Kenya, but being a realistic play, it creates the illusion that the audience is watching real life, thus widening the gap between the performers and the audience and – in my view – making it further removed from African aesthetics of performance.
Role Play on the other hand, through its use of non-realism, or theatricalism, constantly reminds the audience that they are watching a play, when the character of the houseboy (Sam de Brouwer) speaks to them directly, confiding secrets about the other characters and reading his latest poem. Although this is a classic technique of exposition, the fact that it closes the gap between the performer and the audience gives the play some degree of African authenticity.
While wa Thiong’o and wa Mirii use realism in Ngahika Ndeenda to portray the struggle of ordinary people, presenting the events objectively, as though the audience is watching real life, Sibi-Okumu uses theatricalism in Role Play to give a subjective view of the world, seeing it through the eyes of the characters.
Using theatrical imagery- like the personified thoughts, (played by Susan Nsiza and Charles Karumi) who reveal the thoughts of the characters at various points of the play and use of light and colour to show the past, the present or the future- delivers the bold, powerful and challenging nature of non-realistic theatre.
This strong rhetoric is heightened by the play’s climatic structure in which the plot is set at the end of a long story, which is Mzee Juma’s life, the whole action taking place in the course of one day.
By casting the same actor for all the domestic roles, director Nick Njache depicts the insignificance of a domestic worker’s individuality in our society and like the title suggests, some members of the cast play a character of a different race.
It seems like Njache adhered closely to Sibi-Okumu’s vision of the play as outlined in the script, perhaps shying away from the blunt reality the play would portray if each character were played by an actor or actress of the same race. None-the-less, the play offers numerous avenues of interpretation through the use of costume, perhaps even masks, in the creation of caricatured characters.
Like any artist, a playwright is influenced by his immediate historical and cultural context. Ngugi wa Thiongo’s work gives us a “close up” of a people- the Kikuyu- dispossessed by the colonial system before and immediately after Kenya’s independence.
Sibi-Okumu’s Role Play, which was first performed in 2004, gives us a “zoomed out” perspective of Kenya’s history and society and gives African drama- and posterity- a new point of reference.
© Anne Manyara 2010