Northern Kenya: The Final Frontier

(This review appeared in The East African 16th-22nd May 2016 under the title, Play Addresses Stereotypes and Power Play)

Olwenya and Denault Photo by Margaretta wa Gacheru

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Any Trekkie or anyone who has had to endure the enthusiasm of one will recognise these words of William Shatner, who plays Captain Kirk in the popular sci-fi series Star Trek.

“To boldy go where no man has gone before”, in particular, is a phrase that may sharply divide the custodians of grammar on the subject of split infinitives but stirs in the rest of us feelings of conquest and bravado.

This pursuit of conquest and bravado is the central theme in Aid Or Do Nothing, a play written and directed by Robin Denault, which opened on 5th May at Phoenix Theatre.

The audience rises, as is customary in Kenyan theatre, to the national anthem at the beginning of the play. But this rendition, which sounds like what would have been Richard Wagner’s interpretation of our anthem, carries on seamlessly into the sound effects of the play, set in a refugee camp in northern Kenya.

The play, climatic in structure, opens with a scene in a police station where the inspector, a typical, run-of-the-mill police officer (Sam Psenjen) is interrogating William Brandt (Robin Denault), a Canadian aid worker. It is not for nothing that Psenjen plays the role with a heavy Kikuyu accent- cultural identity is also a strong theme in this play.

The scenes then alternate in place and time between the police station and flashback scenes that narrate the events that lead up to the interrogation.

The shifting axes of power is another pertinent theme. The gun-brandishing inspector commands power over Brandt but in the flashback scenes, Brandt wields power over his junior Kenneth Maina (Maina Olwenya), for seemingly no other reason other than the fact that he is a ‘mzungu’(white person).

But when his secret association with terrorists is revealed to Maina, the power shifts momentarily as the information he has could ruin Brandt. But, the power shifts back to Brandt, because the terrorists (voice provided by Khaleed Abdul Aziz) need him, once again the ‘mzungu’ card playing in his favour.

The play puts the spotlight on a number of stereotypes- but whether it reinforces or defies the stereotypes is rather ambiguous. Yet, therein lies the gist of a good play. “You think I am a stupid Kenyan policeman?” the inspector asks Brandt. But then he later unwittingly leaves his gun on the desk, allowing Brandt to grab it and once more have the upper hand.

Salat and Denault Photo by Margaretta wa Gacheru

Brandt’s secret relationship with the young girl from the refugee camp (Zeitun Salat), with it’s bizarre, silent communication comes across as one of those weird, incomprehensible  ‘mzungu eccentricities’. But then, perhaps as a foreshadowing to this event, in an impassioned defence of his ‘excel spreadsheet’ Brandt says, “do not insult the only thing that makes sense here.”

Interspersed with tongue-in-cheek humour- like the Brandt’s portrayal of a telephone conversation amongst Kenyans- the play presents the Brandt as a protagonist, “in love with poverty”, oscillating between lucid analysis of the aid world and pathological delusion.

Brandt likens himself to Captain Kirk in Star Trek (and then the penny drops regarding the Wagneresque national anthem) and likens Maina to Lieutenant Uhura- a black woman, referring to the kiss between the two characters. (Which it is not, as popularly believed to be and as cited in the play, the first interracial kiss on American television, but it still did cause a stir- the NBC were reluctant to airing it and BBC omitted the episode altogether- and is remembered for this.)

But the fact that Brandt sees himself as Captain Kirk and Maina as his (female) lieutenant betrays the extent of Brandt’s obsession with being in a position of superiority and his assertion of male dominance over all else- his fight against poverty being for him, a romantic conquest.  “The White Saviour Industrial Complex is not about justice”, he says,it is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

Denault and Psenjen Photo by Margaretta wa Gacheru

Maina confronts this state of affairs, likening (white) aid workers to marabou storks: “…hanging about, sitting around, like those giant birds, those marabous on the top of those trees as you drive into Nairobi. Looking down, above everything.”

This confrontation seems to be a source of chagrin for Brandt and the main premise of conflict in the play. And this conflict is most effectively represented through the whiskey-drinking scene and the walkie-talkie conversation that precedes it.

In fact, the action of the play is most gripping from this point on.

© Anne Manyara 2015

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