French Elements

(This review appeared in The East African 26th October-1st November 2013)

Nathalie Vairac in John Sibi Okumu's Elements Photo: James Gichanga
Nathalie Vairac in John Sibi Okumu’s Elements Photo: James Gichanga

Elements, the new play by John Sibi-Okumu premiered at Alliance Française on 18th October 2013. As a Chevalier des PalmesAcademiques– an award given to him by the French government in 2002 for the promotion of French- it should probably come as no surprise that the play is in French.

Like Sibi-Okumu’s other plays, Role Play and Meetings, Elements has a climatic structure. Role Play,is set at the end of Mzee’s life and Meetings, at the height of family tension and Elements at the pinnacle of a career of a writer and academic, played by the French actress Nathalie Vairac.

The choice of a woman, and not a man, for the character, seems to give Sibi-Okumu an objective distance between himself and the character and to allow him to span an entire spectrum of themes, from racial prejudice and stereotypes to domestic plights.

The choice of French, rather than English, for the text also creates an objective distance for a Kenyan audience. When the writer speaks of going to Kenya to visit her paternal grandmother (and here the allusion to Barack Obama cannot go unnoticed), je suis allée au Kenya as opposed to ‘I went to Kenya’ gave me the feeling of Kenya being a distant and exotic land.

Sibi-Okumu creates, in this character, an everywoman. Her father is half Kenyan, half Indian and her mother is half Jamaican, half Irish. When she’s in India, they think she’s Indian, in America they think she’s American and in Tel Aviv, they think she’s Ethiopian. Through her own life and the life of the characters in her oeuvre, she talks about many universal and contemporary issues including love, romance, domestic violence, FGM and sexual child abuse.

The tone of the play, for the most part, is staid and serious. It is performed in French with English subtitles but it has a pace and sobriety that allows the whole audience, irrespective of the language of orientation, to engage with the text.

Nathalie Vairac Photo: James Gichanga
Nathalie Vairac
Photo: James Gichanga

It is not out-rightly obvious why the play is titled Elements but what is certain is that all elements of theatre- text, acting, direction, lighting, music and choreography- come together with remarkably high professional standards.

Vairac, who has worked with notable directors like Peter Brook, draws her experience and inspiration from Europe, the Caribbean, India and Africa and it was refreshing to watch an actress of such fibre on a Kenyan stage.

The set, designed by Sibi-Okumu, who is also the director, depicts the writer’s working space- shelves to the right and left of the stage, a sofa at centre stage and a desk at stage left. The writer prepares for an anticipated interview on the occasion during which she will be awarded for her literary achievements.

The entire play gives the impression of being inside the world or- if you will- the mind of the writer, where characters step out of the pages on which they were created and come to life, embodied by this fluid character played by Vairac.

The music, which has a West African feel to it, is an integral part of the text. The guitar music, which the character refers to on more than one occasion, is written and performed by Jacob Sibi-Okumu and the song Come Home is written and performed by Jason Sibi-Okumu.

Nathalie Vairac Photo: James Gichanga
Nathalie Vairac
Photo: James Gichanga

The lighting by Jean-Pierre Nepost, which is the crowning element of the show, accentuates the temperance of the play. Nothing about the lighting is random or arbitrary- every colour, hue and timing is calculated to precision. In fact, the lights appear to enter and exit the stage like a second character. The play begins with Vairac on stage and the house lights dim after she starts pacing the stage, already in character, meaning the stage lights ‘enter’ after her. And the play ends with the words, maintenant, j’éteins la lumière (now, I put out the lights) and the lights ‘exit.’

This is a clean, crisp play- a triumph for Kenyan theatre. However, the wide range of themes addressed, the multi-cultural aspect of the character and the fact that the text is in French breaks the Kenyan mould. And though it is a play that would hold its own, anywhere in the world, it is essentially an African play.

© Anne Manyara 2013



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