Poetic Homecoming

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 4th-10th April 2011 under the title: A Dramatic ‘Homecoming’ Recital)

FOURTEEN poems comprise what seems to be largely an autobiographical work, Homecoming, by Sitawa Namwalie, that was performed in the Austin Room at Braeburn School, on Friday 4th March.

The poems decry Western domination (Eh, Kumbe I am Poor) and the slanted writing of our history (Land of the Guiltless Natives), satirise third world issues (Oprah Endorses the Toi Market Support Group),  and emphasise  the need to define our identity (Nameless), amongst various other  themes.

At the risk of discussing the historical issues underscored in this production in favour of the more critical aesthetic ones, I would like to draw attention to the second poem, Land of Guiltless Natives which is an excerpt from Namwalie’s previous production, Cut Off My Tongue.

Although this is presented with humorous mimicking of early colonialists such as they may have upraised Kenya at the time, it is mistaken to suggest that our apparent ‘obsession’ with land stems from colonial influence seeing as land was vital to many African communities in pre-colonial times, in particular the Kikuyu community, whose Mau Mau war is comprehensively outlined by Caroline Elkins in Britain’s Gulag, in which she aptly states, ‘A kikuyu could not be a Kikuyu without land’.

Furthermore, the title Land of Guiltless Natives mocks our tendency to idealise our past yet Homecoming, in its entirety seems to do just that.

This ‘ideal past’ has been a dominant theme in the postcolonial years, even amongst prominent writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngugui wa Thiong’o, who were steeped in English literature in their formative years and thus owe, to an extent,  their successful writing careers to the European literary traditions that they find themselves pitched against.

It’s worth noting that works of African writers that have achieved classic status are those that find a reasonable middle ground, such as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which has been described by Simon Gikandi, a noteable scholar of African literature and a professor of English at Princeton University as “an ambiguous representation of the Igbo past as heroic but, at the same time, compromised by Okonkwo’s blind commitment to his culture and his obliviousness to alternative values and interpretations”.

It was not clear to me, whether to regard Homecoming as a dramatised reading of poetry or as a performance of poetry.  If it was meant to be a theatrical performance, then the use of theatrical space is of the essence.

Exploring various ways of using the stage as a metaphoric space is what distinguishes the realm of text from that of performance. A good description of this metaphoric space can be found in the prologue of Shakepeare’s Henry V in which the chorus asks the audience to “make imaginary puissance” and to “think, when we talk of horses, that you see them”.

Namwalie and the other performers, Alice Karunditu and Shan Bartley read out the poems as opposed to reciting them from memory which greatly compromised the performance element.

In performance, set, costume, lights, music and movement are as important in the communication of ideas as the text is.

The poster described Homecoming as “a dramatisation of 14 poems infused with music and movement.” I therefore anticipated stage movement that explores the expressive possibilities of the human body and its interaction with other elements of performance. The use of the Austin Room at Braeburn as opposed to the main theatre may have also limited the exploration of such possibilities.

The three lessos that were draped on the back wall rendered an ‘African feel’ but did not necessarily define the space. The music, played by Henry Isaac Anyang’a echoed and interspersed the text but could have had a bigger impact if it were integral to more elaborate movement.

If I absolutely had to categorise this performance, I would place it under Performance Art, which is an experimental form of modern theatre that defies definition. Performance Art, is a dissent against the entire canon of Western theatre, largely inspired by the work of French and Polish directors Antonin Artaud and Jerzy Grotowski respectively, which seeks to revisit such as questions as, What is theatre? What is performance?

This would be the most appropriate forum to in which to discuss Namwalie’s work for beneath this search for cultural identity, there is an implicit search for artistic identity.

* * *

Thought: Perhaps there is a need, as Africans, to accept our colonial heritage as an inevitable, albeit disconcerting truth and attempt to construct our identity on this reality rather than on an elusive past? Gikandi aptly notes that ‘culture is defined by ambivalence, rather thanunquestioned authority.’

© Anne Manyara 2011

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ghafla!Kenya says:

    A thorough and insightful breakdown of Homecoming by Sitawa Namwalie…good stuff!

  2. chinwendu says:

    i need a detailed account of the history of african theatre

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