(This review appeared in The East African 6th-12th December 2014)
With Christmas increasingly becoming a secular affair, Steve Muturi’s Joy to the World, which premiered at Phoenix on 28th December does make an attempt to remind us that Jesus is the reason for the season.
But much as theatre needs us to suspend our disbelief, this production may require you to suspend your theological inclinations as well.
In the Annunciation scene, Archangel Gabriel (Gibson Ndaiga), in a checked, bright-orange suit, surprises Mary (Maureen Munene)- and the audience- by popping his head through her sitting room window to greet her. “How can this be?” she asks, when he gives her the news that she is to bear a child, “I am a virgin,” she explains, and then adds, “Nime-chill”.
The director, Eugene Oyoo, casts a rather young, almost baby-faced Joseph (Yusuf Ang’asa) to whom Gabriel speaks directly, and not in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife- although they’ve been living together, chilling notwithstanding.
Set in the Banana region of Nairobi, Muturi’s rendition of the nativity story is set against a backdrop of current social, economic and political circumstances.
On their way to Bethlehem for the census, by which time Mary is very heavy with child, Joseph and Mary are pointed to a matatu with a coffin on the roof and the inscription ‘little donkey’ on it- it is the only available means of transport left.
Muturi does stretch his poetic license quite a bit but many parts of the text are witty and rather risqué and I found myself laughing despite myself.
As the wise men find their way to Bethlehem, Gabriel, meets two socialites (Michelle Maina and Ivy Wanjiku) who are taking selfies- and ‘chesties’ and ‘backies’. When they attempt to flirt with Gabriel he informs them that he is an angel but misinterpreting this for the urbanite meaning of men who call themselves angels, they advice him never to go to Uganda.
The three wise men are a motley lot- one is in denim dungarees (with no shirt), a cowboy hat and boots to match (Johnson Chege), the second is wearing a business suit, carrying a brief case (Tom Omollo) and the third is in a kanzu (Kevin Amuoma) each with a strong Kikuyu, Luo and Somali accent respectively.
The one who looks like a businessman owes the other two money and to get himself out of this pickle, he explains a skewed mathematical logic to them, very akin to a joke that had been doing its rounds on social media.
They then see something bright in the sky and it is the Somali one who tells the rest that this is a star marking the birth of a great king. When they ask how he knows this, he tells them he got the information from Google.
But there are parts of the script that completely veer off the plot, in what seems to be an attempt to pack in as much current content as possible, like King Herod’s henchman going offstage to get plastic containers to siphon fuel from a fallen tanker and Herod (Bilal Wanjau), uncharacteristically indulging in some finger-wagging about how dangerous it is to steal fuel and so forth.
And an otherwise promising text is diluted by too much ad lib by the actors, to a point where it is difficult to tell, in some scenes, if the action is text-based or wholly improvised.
Mary and Joseph finally make it to an inn where an irate inn keeper (Gathoni Waweru) informs them that hers is the sort of establishment where people go to (unintentionally) make babies- not to have them.
For a musical, the songs are rather sparse but two stand out in creating the overall mood of the production- Mary Did You Know, written by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene (though not duly credited in the programme) and a taarabu song whose details are also not provided, sung by Herod’s entourage while he is in Mombasa. And there is no dance at all, which is the third integral part of a musical.
But when the magi and the socialites make it to the lodge, where Mary, Joseph and the inn-keeper are cooing over baby Jesus, it may be a most unexpected nativity scene, but it is surprisingly heart-warming.
© Anne Manyara 2014