(This review appeared in The East African 24th-30th March 2014 under the title, The Rise and Fall of Melissa’s Ambition)
Borrowed Life by Seth Busolo showed on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th March 2014 at the Michael Joseph Centre.
Like many of Busolo’s plays, it portrays the everyday pre-occupations of young middle class families in Kenya and I was quite intrigued to learn that the company, Wholesome Entertainment, has a vision statement, which is “to see prosperity in relationships, marriage and family.”
In many ways, Busolo could be described as Kenya’s Henrik Ibsen. In fact, this play is somewhat reminiscent of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the only difference being that Busolo’s protagonist, Melissa (Manda Khabetsa) is not the quaint and sheltered damsel that is Ibsen’s Nora. Melissa is ambitious and competitive- she simply must have everything that everyone has.
She is literally agitated when she learns that her chama friend Sabina (Denise Ngibuini) and her husband (who is always bringing her gifts from exotic places like Paris) have bought a new house worth 12 million shillings. “It is because her husband works for a sacco and they get very good rates on mortgages,” she says to her other chama friend Grace (Charity Nyambura) in a bid to console herself for being outdone by Sabina, who is “only 27”.
Later, it emerges that Sabina and her husband live in Sabina’s brother-in-law’s house, as the said brother lives abroad. Since they haven’t paid rent for a number of years, they have been able to save up towards the purchase of the house.
But by this time, Melissa and Grace, caught up in the rat race, are already up to their necks in a crooked forex business, dealing with a dubious character called Mr Juma (Timothy Ndiisi).
Mr Juma is the most layered of all Busolo’s characters. Walking with the aid of a walking stick and speaking in a heavy Luhya accent, he brings comic relief. In a tirade lasting at least five minutes, he uses all manner of metaphor to tell his henchman Cornelius (Justine Karunguru) how fat he (Cornelius) is. But beneath all this humour, Ndiisi aptly conveys a dark side that looms about Juma in his dealings with the other characters, including Jessica (Joyce Maina), Melissa’s 19-year-old niece, who Juma takes as his mistress.
Juma’s impending menace eventually boils over in the scene where the plot starts to unravel for Melissa. In a very chilling scene, for losing his money in one of her dodgy schemes, he holds Melissa by the neck and brings her to her knees. It is chilling not so much because Juma is the nastiest villain I’ve ever seen in the collective oeuvre of Kenyan playwrights but more so because we know that such villains exist in Kenya- we’ve just never seen them on stage.
When Melissa ends up in jail, her husband, Adam (Brian Ogola), loyal to the end, confronts Juma in a rage, which is very touching. However, Juma’s reaction (he scampers away) is quite implausible. A villain like Juma doesn’t take threats kindly and wouldn’t chicken out so easily- he’d probably have Adam ‘disappear’ as he does to one of the unseen characters in the play.
Busolo probably wants to soften the Mr Juma impact for his audience who, most likely well-acquainted with American drama, prefer happy endings.
The stage is set in Melissa’s and Adam’s sitting room throughout the play, while other scenes, like the golf course scene, are acted on the apron of the stage. These scenes are not well directed. The actors pace the stage aimlessly, thereby diluting the tension and weakening the characters.
There could have been more innovative use of the stage on the part of the director, May Wairimu. The set doesn’t need three large sofas for the audience to understand that it is a sitting room. It is well appreciated that the tone and nature of the play is best suited to realism but not many stages in Nairobi (least of all, the one at the Michael Joseph Centre) can allow for elaborate scene changes.
And inasmuch as the sofas are donated by one of the sponsors of the play, there is still a delicate balance to strike between financial constraints and aesthetic considerations.
Thus, the prison scene is hastily played on the stage apron, and not even at the centre of the apron but to the stage right. Yet, this is the scene where we witness MeClissa, now heavily pregnant, finally face the inevitable- her destiny. Like any tragic character, she seals her fate the the beginning of the play, when she falls to her ambition.
© Anne Manyara 2014