A Time When Theatre Sizzled: A tribute to Francis Imbuga

A slightly edited version of this feature appeared in The EastAfrican 8th -14th December 2012 under the title Betrayed by Politics

Francis Imbuga in the foreground facing John Sibi-Okumu in the 1975 production of MUNTU by Joe de Graft photo from John Sibi-Okumu's collection
Francis Imbuga in the foreground facing John Sibi-Okumu in the 1975 production of MUNTU by Joe de Graft photo from John Sibi-Okumu’s collection

Mulili: This, that even although majority lecturers at Kafira University be expatriate, that not his business. He go there to learn and not to criticise policy that he know nothing about.

Mulili’s words in Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City, which opened at the Kenya National Theatre on  May 9, 1975, do not merely explain the circumstances surrounding the death of the student Adika and the imprisonment of the lecturer Mosese. These words allude to the actual happenings of the time – when the Kenya National Theatre and the University of Nairobi were, in the words of theatre scholar Mshai Mwangola, “[the two] prominent players in the struggle to develop a Kenyan identity.”

It was a time when “decolonisation” was the catchword, in which regard Mosese says, “I have said everything in mitigation. All I had to say, but it did not help. Words have lost meaning to me. Rehabilitation, nationalisation, Africanisation. What do all these words mean? What is Africanisation in your mother tongue?”

In hindsight, Mosese’s words set apart the moderate Francis Imbuga from the radical academics of the time, in particular Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Owuor Anyumba and Taban lo Liyong’.

Kenneth Watene in the foreground, Abel Ndubu, John Sibi-Okumu and Lydia Kubo in the 1975 production of Joe de Graft's MUNTU photo from John-Sibi Okumu's collection
Kenneth Watene in the foreground, Abel Ndubu, John Sibi-Okumu and Lydia Kubo in the 1975 production of Joe de Graft’s MUNTU photo from John-Sibi Okumu’s collection

Later in the year, on November 24, 1975, Muntu by Joe de Graft opened at the Kenyatta Conference Centre – a play portraying Africa’s epic journey. However, it is the cast rather than the theme of the play that prompts me to write about it.

De Graft directed the play and also played Muntu, Arthur Kemoli was the music advisor and James Falkland did the lighting. In fact, everyone in this production, if not an icon of Kenyan theatre and drama, has at the very least, made significant contribution to theatrical studies and research in Kenya.

In his native Ghana, de Graft was considered a “monumental figure” by an entire generation of writers and undoubtedly, in Kenya, he had the same charisma.

“He was a very large being –  large in body but also large in spirit; he was forceful,” says David Mulwa, who played the role of Divine Drummer.

“We were in awe of Joe, by virtue of both his physical [at least six feet four, I would have thought] and academic stature. He commanded respect effortlessly and the whole cast wished to please him at all times,” says John Sibi-Okumu, who played the First Son.

“He was a very big man: generous, patient and skilful; just what a green actor like me needed!” says Gachugu Makini, who was the Fourth Son and who later studied the plays of Imbuga for his Masters’ degree. “I had done some acting in secondary school, so I had been bitten by the bug, as one might say, but this was much, much bigger. Look at whom I was acting against: Mulwa, Imbuga, John Sibi-Okumu, Janet Young, Joe de Graft himself, to mention just a few!”

Imbuga – the Second Son – was de Graft’s student. Mulwa had joined Kenyatta University College the previous year, teaching theatre arts in the Literature Department and has since taught a generation of theatre practitioners.

“Most prominent people of Kenyan theatre were either taught by David or taught by people who were taught by David,” says the scholar and dramatist, Oby Obyerodhyambo, who was also one of Mulwa’s students.

“I am re-experiencing fun. I am re-experiencing theatre,” was Mulwa’s sentiment during the staging of Muntu.

“Those were the days when Wafula Wanyoni and Kinyanjui Karago, as stage managers, could nip across to the Central Police Station and sign out real guns and ammunition for use on stage,” says Sibi-Okumu.

“We did theatre for the love of it,” says Edwin Nyutho – the Third Son –  who was a student at the time, and is now a lecturer at Nairobi University. (But) by using theatre for ideological war, some practitioners took it too far.”

Yet, while all this fun was going on, for a play about Africa, the stalwarts of the Africanisation of theatre –  Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo et al  – were conspicuously absent from this production.

In his preface to The Black Hermit (1968), Ngugi writes, “… in some schools, an annual production of Shakespeare with African boys dressed in the costumes of sixteenth century England, has become – like Speech Day –  a ritual.” Thus, “Breaking away from this dry convention” became Ngugi’s raison d’être.

Certainly, Ngugi was justified in his stance against the imperial arrogance of the National Theatre management. In 1976, when he and Micere Mugo wrote The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, which, together with Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City was chosen to represent Kenya at the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos the following year, it took a lot of mayhem to get the European management of the KNT to allow these plays to be staged there.

It is worth noting however, that all the people mentioned here –  be they radical or moderate in their views of what it meant to be liberated –  have one thing in common and that is that they were all from elite schools: Lenana, Nairobi School and especially Alliance, where there was a very strong drama tradition –  the very schools that Ngugi refers to above.

They had been steeped in an education that on the one hand elevated their status in society and at the same time belittled their African selves. The ideological debates of the time revealed, in essence, an identity crisis. 

Inasmuch as all these academics and dramatists felt unanimously that the National Theatre, and the arts as a whole, should champion African culture and heritage, a rift in ideology was emerging, giving prominence to, in Obyerodhyambo’s words, “A leftist radical coterie led by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ngugi wa Mirii, Kimani Gecau, Micere Mugo etc.”

Their Marxist leanings soon got them into trouble with the government and by 1982, the year which Mwangola points to as the one that ended that theatrical era, the government came down heavy-handedly on theatre. Kamĩrĩithu Community Theatre was razed and wa Thiong’o, wa Mirii, Mugo and Gecau fled into exile.

Muntu, which ironically was the set book for the O-level Literature syllabus, was also banned, if only briefly. Such was the government’s paranoia.

The confrontation between the government and Ngugi and his colleagues gave them iconic status and their flight to exile earned them international recognition. Yet they did not necessarily have any more academic or literary talent than their counterparts like Imbuga, Mulwa, Kemoli or John Ruganda.

Mulwa, who was Ngugi’s student and who describes him as “an incredibly brilliant teacher,” says, “however, I found him irritatingly sold onto “isms”. All human aberrations won’t vanish by simply sinking all capitalists in the Mariana Trench. Even though you understand where he was coming from, I thought he went overboard. There was room for dialogue.” 

Betrayal in the City (pic)0002In September 2012, Arthur Kemoli died in November of the same year, just as the former cast members of Muntu were coming together to stage the play in his honour, Francis Imbuga too died.

Imbuga in particular, is an icon –  a prolific writer, an astute playwright, an excellent actor –  whose light has been obscured by political hype, which Kenyans are so fond of indulging in, at the expense of ideas and debate.

© Anne Manyara 2012

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