Fire By Ten

Kenyan Theatre in the Furnace

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 4th-10th June 2012)

Squich Musau photo by Keith Pearson
Squich Musau photo by Keith Pearson

The disintegration of the values that held a society together notably in Europe has seen the rise of experimental theatre where the role traditional elements of theatre, especially the text and the performance space, have been challenged.

In Kenya, and in Africa as a whole there has been a lot of effort so far to unify traditional elements of performance with the acquired Western forms, the latter however, having more prominence. Kenyan theatre has had its highs and lows but whether or not a ‘true’ Kenyan style has been developed remains a matter of debate.

If the performance by Fire By Ten Productions which I watched on Friday 18th May at the Ukumbi Mdogo of the Kenya National Theatre could be used as a measure of how close we are to this desired ‘aesthetic cohesion’, then I would say that we are still far from achieving it but it is the process- and not the end- that counts and it is reassuring to know that there is experimental theatre going on in Kenya.

A scene from Trees photo by Keith Pearson
A scene from Trees photo by Keith Pearson

The show comprised six pieces that were the product of a writers’ workshop organised by The Theatre Company in December 2011 and is directed by Lydiah Gitachu with the assistance by Robin Denault and Sharon Nanjosi.

The first piece is Ice Cream Treat by Ciru Naomi, which I believe is written for children. The best critics for a children’s play are the children themselves so the best gauge of the play’s success would an audience of children, possibly aged under five. Given the dearth of quality children’s theatre by professional companies, any work in this area is welcome and commendable. However, for children’s theatre costume and decor are crucial to character development, possibly even more than the text does and not much effort was made here in this regard.

Trees by James Gathitu, tells the story of the Garden of Eden from the trees’ perspective, integrating dance and movement.  That these performances were a result of a writers’ workshop was obvious because the text in almost all performances showed a lot of innovation but the choreography was generally underdevelopment and movement, especially in this particular piece, lacked fluidity.

A Scene from Mwiba photo by Keith Pearson
A Scene from Mwiba photo by Keith Pearson

The next piece, Mwiba, was by far, the most captivating in that it was a complete story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It tells the epic story of the village wrestling hero, who dies in mysterious, witchcraft-related circumstances and is survived by his adoring daughter who grows up, marries and having no children with her husband, conceives twins with her brother-in-law while her husband is away in the battlefield.

Though it uses clichéd representations of traditional society, the language- Kiswahili sanifu– is beautiful, the coastal traditional dances (which, like in the previous piece could do with a touch of finesse choreography-wise) are entertaining and the use of songs very innovative. A song is used to create the mood, to show the development of the girl from childhood to adulthood and to depict change of scene and progression of time.

Sylvia Namusassi photo by Keith Pearson
Sylvia Namusassi photo by Keith Pearson

Intersection by Tony Mboya is a text-based glimpse into the life of a Kenyan aspiring artiste. It is set at a bus stop where a broke, out-of-work artiste tells his woes to girl at the bus stop, who is a stranger to him. Mboya uses subtle humour and clever story-telling devices, like the part where the artiste gives the girl a clipboard which has the script he has written and they re-enact, (though blandly on the part of the girl- which is the comic premise) the scene in which the artiste’s wife throws him out for not having any money and spending all his time writing ‘wierd’ poems. It is a good script by any standards, which can be developed into a full play and is possibly the most ‘truly Kenyan’ of all the pieces.

What are the Odds? by Ogutu Muraya is also text-based play which at this point comes as a work-in-progress (actually, rather a work-still-very-much-in-progress). A young man and woman meet on a city council bench, little knowing that this meeting has been arranged by their ailing mother, since the girl suffers short-term memory amnesia and the young man does not initially recognise his sister as the criminal for whom he is a henchman. The plot and story-line are interesting and there is a good twist-in-the-tale but the characters lack the intensity that would need to pull off the story on the seemingly intended thought-provoking level.

© Anne Manyara 2012

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