The History Box

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican 21st- 27th May 2012 under the title The Best Friend Who Exposes All Your Secrets)

Karungaru, Rimbui and Wasike photo by Mwangi Kirubi
Karungaru, Rimbui and Wasike photo by Mwangi Kirubi

Most iconic Kenyan plays are about politics and nationhood with emphasis on the moral fibre of the characters vis-a-vis public office, like in Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City (1976) or about African identity threatened by Western values like in Joe de Graft’s Muntu (1975).

Seth Busolo however, writes about marriage and relationships. His play, The History Box which I watched on Saturday 12th May 2012 at the Louis Leakey Auditorium lays emphasis on contrasting gender traits- a recurring theme in modern pop-psychology culture- and how these affect the dynamics of a relationship. The play premiered in February this year at the same venue.

The play is well structured. All the important elements of the plot that bring about the conflict and the premise of the action are introduced in the opening scene: Fiona (Sylvia Wasike) and Stan (Justin Karunguru) are quintessential, recently married characters. Stan comes home and the first thing he tells Fiona is that a couple they know are getting a divorce after barely three months of marriage. This scene also establishes that Fiona and Stan are preparing to leave for the US, having won a green card lottery and Stan is doing everything he can to ensure their comfort upon their arrival in the US.

Fiona is scared and suspicious and her actions are motivated by the need to protect herself, because her father left them when she was young and she is scared of the same thing happening to her. Determined to secure financial security of herself and her mother in the event that Stan should leave her, she has been secretly stashing away money and being dishonest to Stan about how much she earns, while Stan is obviously struggling under the financial strain of their imminent emigration to the States.

Her fears are confirmed when she learns from Njeri (Sarah Rimbui) that the floor lamp in their sitting room is a souvenir from Stan’s ex-girlfriend, a girl with a femme fatale reputation. Stan’s inner conflict is more subtle- torn between the love he lost in Faith and the love he later found in Fiona. He later admits to Fiona that he kept the lamp for boyish reasons- a reminder of past conquest.

Njeri is an ambiguous character. On the one hand, she seems to be like the one true constant in their life- a friend who is always there for them, who knows them well. She is candid and seems to respect their boundaries, yet, all the secrets they have learnt about each other, which have almost torn them apart have been disclosed by, or through, Njeri. Yet, despite being the discloser of secrets, her own secrets are fiercely guarded.

In the restaurant scene, for example, an old flame, Tom (Eddie Peter) walks to their table and attempts to have a conversation with her that’s dripping with sexual innuendo and she gives him the cold shoulder. When he leaves, before Fiona can ask anything, Njeri hushes her with, “Sh! One word from you and I will slice your lips!”

In theatre, there are characters who stand out- characters who are used as a measure of an actor’s fibre and for whom directors carefully select the actors to embody them. Njeri is such a character and perhaps this is why the director Sara Rimbui, chose to play the role herself. The role is well-executed, despite the fact that Njeri’s interchanged Rs and Ls of a Kikuyu accent are also laced with the misplaced aspired ‘h’ of a Kamba accent.

Wasike and Karunguru photo by Mwangi Kirubi
Wasike and Karunguru photo by Mwangi Kirubi

Busolo uses Njeri as a catalytic device. She is the one who reveals the secrets that Fiona and Stan have kept from each other bringing about the obstacles and complications that arise bringing the play up to its climax where Fiona takes of her ring, places it on the table and walk out.

Mama Makena steps in at this point to reconcile them. Mama Makena (Daisy Busolo), a stock character, serves the purpose of bringing across the playwright’s message which is that trust and honesty are integral aspects of happiness in a marriage. It seems that Seth Busolo intentionally makes her a stock character for comic effect in order to tone down the message so that it doesn’t come across as too ‘preachy’. It works.

The resolution scene however lacks the succinctness of the earlier scenes. It’s repetitive and drags out a little. The play ends with the characters making fun of each other’s peculiar character traits, supposedly to eliminate the ‘happily ever after’ cliché.

© Anne Manyara 2012

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