While Seth Busolo’s Poison Ivy, which premiered at Alliance Française on 8th February, depicts the daily ordeals of a middle class Nairobi family, John Sibi-Okumu’s Meetings, which premiered at Phoenix Theatre on 15th February takes a macro view of the Kenyan middle class.
Meetings, is very much like Sibi-Okumu’s first play, Role Play, in its dominant historical theme, climatic structure and quintessential characters only that, while Role Play looks into racial issues in Kenya, Meetings addresses other issues like ethnic identity but more essentially, the morphing middle class.
With the exception of one scene at Uhuru Park, all scenes take place in three different living rooms. However, the director, Nick Njache uses one elaborate set to represent all three sitting rooms, making it difficult to ‘suspend disbelief’ and the numerous entries and exits rather tedious. The play would benefit from more innovative use of space, going beyond the confines of realism.
Like the title suggests, the play is made up of various conversations, mainly dialogues, through which the life history of each character is revealed and the plot is threaded together. Each character represents a profile of the various personae that define Kenya’s elusive middle class.
Firstly, there is Grandma (Lydia Gathachu) a university graduate in her seventies, although Gathachu’s diction and gait depict a much older woman. The play is very time-specific, even alluding to ‘the forth-coming general elections’ meaning that Grandma represents a minority- the few women her age today, who went up to university. She is a teacher and a well-known writer.
Her late husband Cornelius, an unseen character who attained his postgraduate degree in Wales, was a civil servant who died under mysterious circumstances during the Kenyatta regime. His name in itself reveals the first generation of Western-educated elite, who were steeped in classical literature in English and Latin and all other trimmings of an English upper-class education.
It was in this vein that Cornelius named his first son Augustus (Samson Psenjen) and the second, Julius (Bruce Makau). Augustus, popularly known as ‘Gus the guy’ in his university days fled the country after being tortured at Nyayo House with other university students who supported the rebels that attempted to overthrow the government in 1982. He therefore did not finish his studies at the university and did a number of odd jobs in the United States, eventually settling as a truck driver. Even though his flee to the United States was due to political reasons, he still represents that section of the middle class who, despite their elite background and upbringing left the country mainly for economic reasons during Moi’s era and ended up on the opposite end of the social spectrum.
Gus’s son, Samora (David Mulei) thus represents a generation of Kenyans born in the Diaspora, whose education is limited to Disney and Hollywood and is clueless about Shakespeare and other aspects of culture that ordinarily define the middle class.
From their first meeting, Samora strikes off a good rapport with his uncle Julius, whose polished English is worlds apart from Samora’s American lingo, making a distinction between those who were taught ‘the King’s English’ and those whose vocabulary is largely obtained from American television.
The alcoholic Julius, who lives alone because his wife and children have left him, represents that segment of the middle class that stayed in Kenya and braved the hard times. He is the most complex of all the characters and is memorably portrayed by Makau.
Esther (Jane Gathoni), the pious single mother, was Gus’s girlfriend before he left for the US. She did not tell him that she was expecting their daughter, Faoulata, because she ‘did not want him to feel trapped’. He nonetheless paid for Faoulata’s education while he was in the states.
Meshak (Harry Ebale) was Gus’s roommate at the university and was known then as ‘Meshak Mshamba’ by the likes of polished Gus. He represents another layer of Kenya’s middleclass- those who are where they are by dint of hard work and every effort to rub off or conceal any trace of ‘village’ left in them. He has sent his son Ezekiel (Martin Githinji) to private schools and to university in Scotland to ‘get some polish’.
Faoulata and Ezekiel are engaged. The irony is driven home in the scene where the certified accountant, Ezekiel, son of Meshak Mshamba, asks his future father-in-law, the elite Gus the guy, “And may I ask what you do, Sir?” and Gus says, “Right now I’m a truck driver.”
The play culminates at Grandma’s house where she has called them all to a reconciliatory meeting, as if calling for a new social order.
© Anne Manyara 2013