(This review appeared in The East African 14th-20th December 2013 under the title Why must I have life if to live means to die?)
“Everything has been figured out, except how to live,” said French writer Jean-Paul Sartre. This was the theme of The Eulogy of a Neat Man, a one-man play written and directed by Frederick Mbogo, which showed at Pawa254 on Wednesday 27th November, performed by Simon Oyatsi.
Being my first time at Pawa254, situated off State House Crescent, the first thing that came to mind when I entered the performance space was Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris (2011). This because the place had an ‘avant-garde’ spirit akin to that of the new wave of American and French writers featured in the film, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Jean Cocteau. I imagined the ambience was similar to that which inhabited the salon of Gertrude Stein, where all these writers and artists convened.
The waiting room wall is peppered with portraits and quotes by Tom Mboya, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King Jr. et al, all of which signal the quest for freedom and black self-identity and called to my mind the inherent existentialist questions within these themes. It therefore seemed very ‘down with the programme’ when the play began with the questions: “Why? Why must you have life? Why must I have life, if to live means you must die? What does that mean?”
The play takes place in a small room with chairs around a small stage- a small podium really- at the corner of the room. The wall behind the stage is lined with newspapers and at centre stage is a table with a lighted candle before a picture of a young man, with the inscription “James Bindi (1981-2013)”.
Like the title suggests, the play is set a few days after the death of the fictional character James Bindi, “the son of a Quaker teacher and a Quaker shopkeeper.”
Oyatsi, who plays the role of Bindi’s best friend, narrates the events of a life that started out promisingly, but ended up in an everyday dreariness that we’re sometimes oblivious to. The play tells the story of the ordinary Kenyan man- that man at a matatu terminus selling fruit to passers-by. Did you know he has a story? Did it occur to you that he might have been born in rosier circumstances? This play tells that story.
Addressing dreams that parents have for their children, efforts to live life on the straight and narrow, love and the lack thereof, illness, social (in)justice and suicide, the play questions the meaning of life from the perspective of Bindi’s friend, who ponders the finality and the cruelty of death. “James’s body was packed like a thing,” he laments. “And why can’t Cancer come to this useless Mwaniki (the alcoholic son of the landlord)?”
However, from the perspective of Bindi’s landlord, Mr Kuria, the play suggests that acts of charity and benevolence make life less disconsolate. Mr Kuria, as if to make up for having a useless son, pays for Bindi’s medical bills before Bindi finally succumbs to Cancer.
The text is poetic in its rich metaphor and rhetoric repetition, although it generally plays out like a story being narrated amongst friends. Granted, it is a one-man play and therefore lacks the dialogue that dramatic text depends on. However, it still leans more to the literary rather than the dramatic and could easily be published as a short story rather than a one-man play.
It is, however, well paced and has just enough humour to keep the audience from feeling like they’re in an actual wake and just enough sobriety to not lose track of its inherent absurdist questions, and Oyatsi delivers it well.
While existentialism in Europe was triggered mainly by the World Wars and the apparent meaningless of wartime life, amongst Africans, existentialism seems to stem from questions surrounding the meaning of freedom.
About half a century ago, there was the great wave of ‘black liberation’ whose icons form the mural art of Pawa254. But now, a new wave of artists and scholars seem to be asking, what does this freedom mean? Has freedom fulfilled its promises?
Albert Camus, himself an existentialist said, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
The Eulogy of a Neat Man like existentialist plays before it, doesn’t attempt to answer the questions it asks- it merely asks them to stir in us unease about our human condition.
© Anne Manyara 2013