By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted April 21, 2017)
Lupito Nyong’o is not the only one to react with sorrow to the alarming set of images posted on Twitter last Wednesday (April 19) by one of Kenya’s leading stage and screen actors, Mugambi Nthige. The images of auctioneers loading up boxes filled with costumes, props and electronic equipment out in front of the Professional Centre went viral on social media following Mugambi’s tweet.
But just as it was easy to assume Mugambi had snapped those shots himself (probably on a smart phone), so it was just as likely the well-known actor was sharing a fact when he added “Phoenix Players has shut down.”
In reality, it was Tim King’oo, Phoenix’s acting Stage Manager, not Mugambi, who had taken those shots and posted them on the What’s App site ‘Phoenix Rising.’ “Mugambi must have lifted them from there,” notes another Phoenix stalwart, its acting Administrative officer, Brenda Muthoni, who’s been working for the Players since 2015.
“It’s understandable, looking at those images, to assume as Mugambi did, that Phoenix Players was finished, but it’s not,” Muthoni says.
She concedes the current arrears owed to their landlord, APSEA (short for Association of Professional Societies of East Africa) which owns Professional Centre, is a whopping Sh3.8 million. What’s more, that sum doesn’t include the bill sent from Dews Traders auctioneers for services rendered last Wednesday amounting to another Sh120,495.
But neither Muthoni nor King’oo nor the newly-constituted Phoenix Board are prepared to concede the demise of Phoenix. Ironically, neither are a myriad of well-wishers who have come out on social media suggesting something had to be done to save the Players.
“Yet where were all those well-wishers when we needed them,” asks Anita Ngugi, Phoenix’s previous marketing manager. “We had even hoped Lupita would come to see a show at Phoenix when she came to Kenya some time ago,” Anita adds, recalling as Lupita had tweeted, her [award-winning] career had actually begun with her acting with Phoenix Players
Yet just as Mugambi noted in his initial tweet, Phoenix has gone through many years of woe. Indeed, since its inception in 1982, when the late James Falkland and Peri Bhakoo registered Phoenix Players Ltd., the company has struggled. Annual membership combined with ticket sales had previously sustained repertory theatre, including the Players’ predecessor, Donovan Maule Theatre. But as membership numbers and corporate support dwindled, and the Government didn’t see the economic value of Kenya’s creative economy, times got even tougher.
Yet according to Muthoni, further complications compounded Phoenix’s recent woes. She and others have claimed the Players’ current problems are also due to major “mismanagement issues.” Stories of actors and directors not getting paid are rife. So are stories of actors announcing they’d never work at Phoenix again unless the management changed.
Ironically, David Opondoe, who was General Manager at the time, says he quit Phoenix two years back. Yet he admits he’s still the sole signatory of the Players’ Barclays Bank account.
“We don’t even know how much is in that account,” says Muthoni. Apparently, it is only the previous Board which appointed Opondoe back in 2013, that can change the signatory. Yet according to Opondoe, that Board no longer exists. The previous board chairman, Nani Njoroge had officially resigned as did other board members, including Peter Nduati, Lorna Irungu, Mugambi Nandi and Engineer Kingangi.
With no Board of Directors, no General Manager and no access to the Players’ bank account, it was not a surprise to receive an eviction letter from APSEA in November 2016.
“I took the initiative to email the previous board and informed them about the [eviction] letter,” says Muthoni who got a scathing phone call from Opondoe who she hadn’t seen or heard from in over a year.
But from then on, Tim King’oo and Muthoni have been holding meetings with thespians who’ve previously been affiliated with Phoenix and who sincerely want to see the Theatre company survive.
According to Phoenix Players’ Articles of Association, a new board had to be elected by paid-up members. But as all the previous memberships had elapsed, Tim and Muthoni had to recruit new members willing to pay the Sh1000 membership fee. It was those members who subsequently elected a six-person board which is already planning the first fund-raiser production that Mugambi Nthige mentioned in one of his subsequent tweets last week.
“It’s true we’ll have to find a new venue and set a date, but Phoenix Players intends to stage August Wilson’s ‘Gem of the Ocean’, co-directed by Sahil Gada and myself,” says Tim King’oo who’d directed Wilson’s ‘Fences’ a year ago at the Phoenix.
“If the Phoenix is ever going to rise again, it’s got to be now,” adds Martin Githinji, one of the Players’ long-standing supporter and passionate member of Kenya’s theatre community.