KENYAN THEATRE EXPLODED WITH TALENT IN 2016
BY Margaretta wa Gacheru
2016 was a break-out year for Kenyan Theatre as it not only saw a spate of new scripts being staged, and a whole slew of new troupes and ad hoc ensembles being formed; we also saw a number of new venues being used to stage amazing productions.
For instance, while audiences were happy to fill theatre halls at Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institute, Louis Leakey Auditorium and even Kenya National Theatre (which attracted more brilliant productions this year than ever before), many were equally pleased to watch shows everywhere from the Oshwal Centre (to see ‘The Jungle Book’), PAWA254 (to watch Jalada players perform Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘The Upright Revolution’ in seven mother tongues) and The Elephant (to see ‘Tinga Tinga Tales’) to the Storymoja stage (to watch Nyef Nyef Storytellers perform ‘A White Wedding’), the African Leadership Centre (to see the Performance Collective dramatize portions of Yvonne Adhiambo’s novel, ‘Dust’ and even at Kwani? (where five women storytellers dramatized notable African women’s novels in ‘And then she said…’).
The fact that nearly all these venues were fully booked for every performance is a further testimony to the attention that Kenyans themselves are paying to local theatre. This is a dramatic departure from years past when shows were staged for half-full houses (a problem that Phoenix Theatre sadly had most of 2016).
It signals people’s greater appreciation of the entertainment value of live theatre; but it also reflects on the quality of the acting, the directing and even scriptwriting since 2016 is a year when we saw many more original works performed. They included Elsaphan Njora’s ‘51-Nzilan: A Man on a Journey,’ Silvia Cassini’s ‘A Man like You’ (which won accolades at the recent Sanaa Theatre Awards), Eric Wainaina’s ‘Tinga Tinga Tales’, Sitawa Namwalie’s ‘Room of Lost Names’ and Martin Kigondu’s ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ among others.
But I also have to say the quality of acting shot sky high in 2016 with both actors and actresses giving captivating performances. The Sanaa awards for best actor and best actress went to Maina Olwenya for his role in Cassini’s A Man Like You and June Gachui for her part in Millicent Ogutu’s ‘Three Fold Cord’. But I know the judges had a hard time narrowing down the field to one ‘best’ performer since there were so many outstanding performances this past year.
Just take Three Fold Cord with June co-starring with Nice Githinji and Wambui Kamiru Collymore. All three women gave marvelous monologues, but June had the edge for her special sparkle and intimate style, something we also saw when she launched her first music album, June at 20, at KNT in extravaganza-style.
In fact, as exceptional as Maina and June’s performances were, there were many others that I also found thrilling to behold. For instance, Joe Kinyua in the August Wilson classic, ‘Fences’ was amazing as was Maimouna Jallow in ‘And then she said…’ and Muthoni Garland was in ‘A White Wedding.’
Indeed, the talent that was unleashed this past year in shows like Heartstrings’ ‘Behind my Back’, Festival of Creative Arts’ ‘Nuts+’ and Nyef Nyef Storytellers’ ‘Sheros’ was phenomenal.
And while I am tempted to say that the women actors were stronger than the men in 2016 (in light of performance by Maggie Karanja in Smile Orange, Bernice Nthenya in ‘Kiss of Death’, Anne Kamau in ‘Grass is greener,’ Fridah Muhindi in ‘The Hitman’, Agnes Wangithi in ‘Sheros’, Patricia Kihoro in ‘Life in the Single Lane,’ Marianne Nungo in ‘Who’s your Daddy?’ and Helena Waithera in ‘Nuts+’ among many others) I have to step back and reflect on the whole of 2016.
Then I must admit that there were sparkling performances by guys like Nick Kwach and Victor Nyaata in ‘Behind my Back’, Elsaphan Njora in ’51 Nzilani’, Tete Burugu in ‘A White Wedding’, Checkmate Mido in ‘Silence is a Woman’, Andrew Tumbo in ‘The Jungle Book’, Cyprian Osoro in ‘Grass is Greener’ and both Bilal Wanjau and Bilal Mwaura in countless FCA shows this past year.
Equally impressive was the versatility of virtually all the actors’ performances. For while there are those like Victor Nyaata, Cyprian Osoro and Bernice Nthenya who have a special knack for tickling people’s funny-bone (a gift that Heartstrings’ director Sammy Mwangi has also been blessed with), I watched many actors perform in a range of theatrical genres, shifting from comedy to drama to social satire with ease.
But now that new year is about to begin, thespians and other Kenyan creatives are deeply concerned about the Ezekiel Mutua initiative to censor artists’ creative expression with his proposed ‘Film, Stage Play and Publications Bill’. Mutua’s meddling mustn’t be allowed to stifle Kenyans’ imagination which is generating so much joy for the public and also revenue for the country’s thriving creative economy.