Kenya’s Heart Stringed by Comedy

(This article appeared in the East African November 8-14, 2010 under the title Comedy Rules Kenyan Scene)

A Scene from Vioja Mahakamani Image from:

The most successful form of drama in Kenya, in terms of mass appeal is undoubtedly comedy and its development is most probably a direct result of the freedom of speech that Kenyan have enjoyed in recent years.

From Vitimbi and Vioja Mahakamani to the more refined Redykulass the dominance of the comedy genre in Kenyan drama is proof that Kenyans love to laugh.

While tragedy focuses on man’s limitations and subjection to the dictates of destiny, comedy celebrates life and highlights the human ability to overcome strife and misfortune.

Although it is sometimes exasperating to be seated in an audience that is inclined to laugh at anything- even when there is really no joke- as is often the case in Nairobi theatre, it has to be said that this love for comedy doesn’t mean that Kenyans do not take matters seriously, but rather, reflects our resilience in the face of adversity, which is possibly the root of the country’s relative political stability within region (barring the post-election violence in 2007/08).

Tony Njuguna and KJ as President Kibaki and Lucy Kibaki respectively Image from:

I recently went to watch The Post-Promulgation Kenyan Ten Commandments by the Heartstrings Ensemble at the French Cultural Centre and I would say that the Heartstrings Ensemble is for Kenya, what the Monty Python Flying Circus was for Britain. Using hyperbole as the main technique of what has become their signature surreal humour, they offer a light-hearted but non-the-less serious social critique.

The show was a series of sketches, interspersed with stand up comedy, threaded together with the absurd story of a man trying to get his wife’s death certificate, although she is not dead.

The first sketch features a wife who has inherited a fortune, taunting her husband for being financially dependant on her. He therefore decides to obtain her death certificate because, according to the new constitution, he is entitled to inheriting all her wealth upon the presentation of this document.

The rest of the sketches show the different scenes that the man finds himself in, in pursuit of his wife’s death certificate, from a government office where everything is being run extremely well (comically so), to the home of a friend where there is a wedding committee meeting aimed at organising a formal wedding for him, to a hospital scene where nurses have piled dead bodies in a corner. Eventually his wife outwits him and all his efforts have been in vain.

Aristotle in his famous Poetics-, which, over the millennia, has been seen as the theatre handbook-, writes that comedy “consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or ugly.” This refers to comedy’s ability to turn an ugly situation into something painless and this is what enables us to laugh at what is otherwise a very serious matter.

Heartstrings Ensemble in a 2009 production

The cast, for the most part, put up a good performance although there were some parts that were a tad overdone.

The directors, Samwel Mwangi and Victor Ber (Ber being credited as the creative director) showed innovative ways of circumventing the problem of the numerous scene changes, by making them part of the performance. At one point, an actor even shouted across the auditorium to the light technician in the control room, asking him to adjust a spotlight.

Like most arts, theatre plays a crucial role in chronicling a country’s history. However, unlike other arts, a theatre performance, exists only during the time it is being performed and only the audience that is present at the time of its performance witness it.

Thus, even though the show ran for a number of days, I am writing specifically about the show of Tuesday 5th October 2010 at the Alliance Française.

Every show is a unique experience, no matter how many other shows there might have been. The problem however, is that people in the year, say, 2210, may read this and other reviews about the show, but will not actually see it and get a glimpse of life in 21st Century Kenya and comment on whether or not our aesthetics of performance were up to scratch.

The only thing that gives a work of art in theatre longevity is the text. However, sketch comedy, and farce as a whole, depends more on the performer than on the playwright and quite often, the text is improvised (This is why this in this production, it is the ‘concept’ and not the text, that is credited to Dan Ndambuki) and this makes it more difficult to preserve sketch comedy in theatre.

Stand up and sketch comedy are equally suited to theatre and television. However, television drama, because it is recorded, is timeless and can be accessed by people living in 2210 (if their technology will allow it) making this the one area where admittedly, television has an overriding advantage over theatre.

©Anne W. Manyara 2010



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ahai Luvai says:

    I must say I have been waiting rather impatiently for this one. Having a quick peek at Theatre Critic to see if there’s anything new is now standard fare along with emails, internet banking, bills and the like. The idea of creating a comedy or indeed theatre archive seems appropriate. The televised ones are already doing the rounds in cyber space. I imagine someone with a basic handheld video camera, a computer and internet access could upload alot of these things to youtube/equivalent sites. What do you think?

    1. Anne Manyara says:

      Thanks Ahai. Intriguing to know that Theatre Critic is on a par with internet banking and bills!

      Yes, you are right, with the sort of technology we have today, it is possible to ‘archive’ theatre performances. However, the one peculiarity that theatre has over other arts is its being ‘live’. Once it is recorded, it ceases to be theatre. The recording cannot capture all the nuances that come about from being in the actual physical presence of the performer.

      Having said that, I think (which is what I have hinted at in this article), sketch comedy may be better off recorded.

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