What Do We See In Theatre’s Mirror?

(This review appeared in the East African November 29 – December 5 2010 under the title Comedy ‘proposes’  a class struggle under Kenya’s peaceful [society])

David Opondoe as Jerry Mabogo and Lorna Irungu as Anna

Curtains fell on George Mungai’s Propose Me at the Phoenix Theatre on 20th November 2010.

This is a light and entertaining comedy in two acts with a climatic structure, which shows encouraging progress (or should I say renaissance), in playwriting in Kenya.

Jerry Mabogo (David Opondoe), who has just secured a contract to supply computer dust covers to the government intends to run for the parliamentary seat of Shida West, in the coming general elections.

In addition to hiring a ‘development officer’ called Nestor (Sam de Brouwer), he is also depending on the support of his ‘head in the clouds’ wife Hilda (Nyokabi Gethaiga), his son Cliff (Charles Karumi) a student of the ‘Code Matata Dejay and Genge College’ and his mobile phone chatter box daughter Tanya (Stella Nyawira).

His brother Pan (Joshua Mwai), has also been called upon to support the campaign and he has rallied his wife Anna (Lorna Irungu) and son Dan (Brian Munene), the latter having a secret affair with the Mabogos’ househelp, Roda (Jane Abiero).

However, Anna and Hilda have their own plans and decide to support Dan for the seat, little knowing that their children also have their own agenda, which brings an unexpected twist at the end of the play.

I say ‘unexpected twist’ because I assume this was the intention of Mungai, the playwright. However, I think I was not the only one in the audience who saw the twist coming, which I would attribute to an oversight on the part of the director, Nick Njache.

Roda’s presence in that last scene gave it away. The surprise element may have come off better if she had been called in at the time when the youngsters announce that they will support her in the elections.

Furthermore, the reversed role of power that ensued may have been heightened if Njache had made better use of the staircase, having Roda talk down to the rest of the cast from an elevated position and having her say her lines with calm deliberation, as opposed to shouting as if in a tantrum, which actually weakens the character.

This twist of events in itself I also found a little lacking in credibility in that, it is unlikely that three spoilt, middle class brats would shun the opportunity to run for a parliamentary seat in favour of their househelp, notwithstanding her recently inherited fortune, but perhaps their ‘airy fairy’ demeanour, particularly of the Mabogo children, may give this story some weight.

 

Hilda (Nyokabi Gethaiga) Pan (Joshua Mwangi), Anna (Lorna Irungu) Jerry (David Opondoe)

That said, the show I watched on November 13 2010 was lively, hilarious in some parts and well paced. The cast was in good form but Irungu stole the show.

The conflict in the play resided in the contrasts that Mungai portrays: Women against men. Young against old. The dysfunctional and eccentric city family against the organised and level-headed (at least on the surface) upcountry family. The exploited working class against the affluent middle class.

I will refrain from bemoaning the predominant theme of ‘the corrupt Member of Parliament’ in Kenyan theatre, since theatre is only a reflection of our society. If there is too much politics in our theatres, then there is too much politics in our society and collective life.

The other recurrent theme whereby the man of the house, in this case Jerry, making outrageous passes at the househelp, is rather reminiscent of The Marriage of Figaro, in which the 18th century French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais highlights what was known as “The Lord’s Right” which apparently allowed the lord of an estate to sleep with peasant girls on their wedding night.

In fact, Beaumarchais is credited with having triggered the process that led to the French Revolution, with the famous line by Figaro to Count Almaviva in Act V, Scene 3: “Qu’avez-vous fait pour tant de bien ? Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus.” (What have you done for such fortune? You went through the trouble of being born, and nothing else.)

The power struggle between social classes, which is the premise of Beaumarchais’ play, is also a recurrent theme in Kenyan theatre and I wonder if it reflects tensions seething beneath the surface of our outwardly peaceful society.

©Anne W. Manyara 2010

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