Adaptations On The Kenyan Stage: The Good, The Bad and the Very Good

(This article appeared in The East African 28th September-4th October 2013 under the title Adaptations Gone Bad)

Sam Psenjen and Likarion Wainaina as the Menaechmus Brothers Photo Courtesy of Phoenix Players
Sam Psenjen and Likarion Wainaina as the Menaechmus Brothers Photo Courtesy of Phoenix Players

The term‘literary adaptation’, often refers to the transposition a work of art from one medium into another. More common nowadays are novel-to-screen adaptations but novel-to-stage adaptations still hold an important place in literary discourse.

However, on a Kenyan stage,‘adaptation’ more often than not refers to cultural transposition, which involves altering the text here and there so that the names of characters and places are changed to those familiar to a Kenyan audience.

Such adaptations sometimes augment a play’s aesthetic appeal, but sometimes they don’t. This trend is not limited to alterations of names of characters and places but sometimes includes, daringly- (given the legal implications not so much of libel, but of copyrights)-the insertion of words and phrases, for the amusement of the audience.  “I’m going to get Kidero to come and slap you,’ said by Humphrey (Nick Njache) to the angel (Mary Olive Mungai) in Humphrey Pumphrey Had A Great Fall by Alfred Greenaway, is one such example. I am also not convinced that his reference to ‘adaptive Caucasian parents’ features in the original text.

Humphrey Pumphrey, directed by Samson Psenjen was preceded by Steve Carley’s The Edge directed by Likarion Wainaina, in what was dubbed a ‘double bill’ that closed at Phoenix Theatre on Saturday 14th September 2013.

Both plays had the ‘memory play’ aspect, The Edge involving Stuart (Samson Psenjen) recalling a peculiar series of events since the death of his father and Humphrey in Humphrey Pumphrey speaking from the after world, recalling the events that led up to his own death.

But while The Edge, was more engaging, in its depth and delivery, Humphrey Pumphrey, was just half a notch above the tedious bedroom farce that inexplicably continues to thrill a section (I hope) of the Nairobi audience.

In Humphrey Pumphrey, Njache and Wainaina who portrayed three-dimensional characters in the first play,conveyed flat, two-dimensional characters in the second. And the fact that they had to throw in a line about the recent fiasco at the city hall, just to bag a laugh- should have been a signal to the director of how shallow the play is. The two plays in this ‘double bill’ may have adapted Kenyan names but the text and context still had a British ring to it. It didn’t quite come off.

Valentine Kamau and Andrew Kioo in Chekhov's "The Proposal" at Phoenix Theatre
Valentine Kamau and Andrew Kioo in Chekhov’s “The Proposal” at Phoenix Theatre

The truth of the matter is that the staging this sort of middlebrow, British drama by Kenyan actors does often seem rather far-fetched and unconvincing and while as I appreciate Phoenix’s attempts at ‘Kenyanising’ these sort of plays, it’s worth noting that if a play has limited literary content, it doesn’t really work and I think it’s best to leave it out of the repertoire altogether.

Sam Gichira and Likarion Wainaina in A Raisin in the Sun photo by Phoenix Players
Sam Gichira and Likarion Wainaina in A Raisin in the Sun photo by Phoenix Players

The Phoenix production of A Raisin in the Sun in April last year is a good example of a play successfully adapted into the Kenyan culture. The issue of race and racial tensions doesn’t apply to Kenyan culture as it does to American culture, but the director, George Mungai, subtly altered this to deal with the issue of social class.

Tracy Mugo, Esther Neema and Njoki Ngumi in The House of Bernada Alba
Tracy Mugo, Esther Neema and Njoki Ngumi in The House of Bernada Alba

By and large, it seems that, from the plays I have watched so far, for a ‘cultural adaptation’ to make sense, the play needs to be one with depth and substance. Memorable phoenix adaptations that have been successful, apart from A Raisin in the Sun, are The house of Bernada Alba directed by Millicent Ogutu in October 2011 and Romeo and Juliet directed by George Mungai in February 2011.

Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971) seems to be very popular with the Nairobi audience and had a successful run under the title Out of Business directed by Edijoe Mwaniki in October 2011 for Better Pill Productions and another run under the title For Better or For Wife directed by Peter Kawa, Psenjen and Ellis Otieno in June 2012 for The Friends Ensemble.

But, in my opinion, topping the list of Kenya’s theatrical adaptations is Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa, a translation of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor by Ogutu Moraya, performed by The Theatre Company under the direction of Daniel Goldman followed closely by Strathmore Drama Society’s production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General, directed by Nick Muthama in April 2009, the latter’s success owing largely to the remarkable adaptability of Russian plays into Kenyan situations- a topic I intend to write about one of these fine days.

© Anne Manyara 2013

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