By Dr. Margaretta wa Gacheru
It’s been said that Media write the first draft of history. That’s because they are the eye-witnesses to an event. They are the data collectors, the documentarists who future generations of scholars and students of history (and in this case theatre) must refer to when seeking to understand what really happened back then.
For this reason, I wish to make use of this platform that the Kenya International Theatre Festival and the Kenya National Commission of UNESCO have given me to implore both theatre academics and theatre practitioners to make better use of the media to bear witness to what they do.
I make this request because so often, especially within academia there are theatrical events that take place but are not covered by the press. They may have utility as teaching tools for students, but they also could serve to inspire a wider public and make a wider audience aware of the valuable theatrical events underway in spaces like Kenyatta, Moi, Maseno and other universities in Kenya.
I make this request for another reason. This relates to something discussed on the first day of the Conference by a KU doctoral candidate, Gabriel Thuku. He spoke at length about the value of research for theatre arts academics. I also value research but if there has been no documentation of past theatrical events, then the research on Kenyan theatre will be superficial at best. The research will simply use scholarly papers by researchers who went over the same fields without having detailed information about all that went on during specific periods in Kenya’s professional and amateur theatre.
Dr. Mshai Mwangola-Githonga spoke on the first day of the Conference about one technique used in the social sciences to explore specific topics. It is called ‘auto-ethnography’ and is a qualitative research method that utilizes information garnered from the researcher herself. I wish to employ this method in the next section of my paper as I have been fortunate enough to have been an eye-witness to several decades of Kenyan theatre, both within academia as an undergraduate and graduate student of literature at the University of Nairobi and as a theatre critic writing for Kenyan media. I was also an actor performing with UON’s Free Traveling Theatre under the direction of the Ugandan playwright, director and UON lecturer John Ruganda. I also acted in Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s 1976 debut performance of ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’ which was staged first at the Kenya National Theatre and later at FESTAC, the Second World Festival of African Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria.
As a student, I had the good fortune to witness and be part of what I consider to be the Golden Age of Kenyan Theatre. This was when Pan African thespians were living and working in Nairobi, artists like Okot p’Bitek, David Rubidiri, Joe De Graff, Francis Imbuga, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, John Ruganda, Micere Mugo, Janet Young and Mumbi wa Maina.
A number of them were my lecturers; the rest were my mentors who I greatly admired for their dedication to theatre practice and scholarship as well.
What I witnessed and later wrote about as a journalist assigned by my editor, Hilary Ng’weno enables me to speak and write now as someone who pursued both the academicians and the theatre practitioners for stories about what they were doing artistically.
I won’t go into great detail at this time, but I realize there is a tremendous need for today’s theatre arts students to have a far better grasp of Kenyan theatre history than what is available for them to see and study right now. So I will make a quick run through the decades in order to offer a brief survey of that history, starting in the 60s, the decade of Kenyan independence.
The late Sixties is when Ngugi wa Thiong’o spearheaded a cultural revolution at the University of Nairobi, insisting the English Department with its Euro-centric focus be replaced with an Afro-centric focus and renamed the Literature Department.
The core course in the new Literature Departure would be oral literature which later became known as orature. Students were encouraged to go home to interview and collect data in the form of stories and indigenous folktales from their elders. These stories, which had been either ignored or discredited for being unwritten and told in local indigenous languages, were to be seen in a new light. Students would be involved in developing this new field of literature that not only respected indigenous languages but also local people’s culture and oral art forms.
The rest of the curriculum would include Kenyan, West and South African literatures as well as Caribbean, African American, Latin American and also European and American literature.
I was a student at UON starting in the mid-1970s, while this revolutionary sense of culture was alive and thriving. I then was asked by John Ruganda, founder of the UON’s Free Traveling Theatre to rehearse and perform with Kenyan student thespians as we traveled all around the country. This was an immense learning experience.
So was my participation in FESTAC productions with Ngugi and Micere. I was also witness to Ngugi’s creating the Kamiriithu People’s theatre that performed in Kikuyu and staged by local peasants and workers who Ngugi directed, working with a script the peasants helped him to shape although he and Ngugi wa Mirie were the official playwrights. That play ‘I’ll Marry when I want to” had a very powerful political message and one that the Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi didn’t like since it compelled peasants to appreciate the class conditions of the society and the feasibility of an underclass rising to resist the oppressive conditions they were enduring in the current social system.
Ngugi was detained and thespians felt the chill of Moi’s heavy-handed style of censorship. So journalists, thespians and academics either chose to flee the country after that or practice a style of self-censorship that would enable them to survive despite the political scrutiny and surveillance.
All the while this was happening amidst African theatre circles, European amateur and professional theatre was thriving among groups like Nairobi City Players, Lavington Players, the Little Theatre Players of Mombasa, Nakuru Players and others.
One African theatre company that picked up the spirit of indigenizing Kenyan theatre was the Tamaduni Players. Founded by two African women, Janet Young from the Gambia and Mumbi wa Maina from the US, both were professionally trained actors; Mumbi was also teaching at Kenyatta University.
What made Tamaduni special was its effort to bridge the gap between academia and grassroot theatre practice by having its cast members (mostly young theatre students) to go to the streets and collect stories of street children. They then wove those stories together into a play called ‘Portraits of Survival’ which was exceedingly powerful and unprecedented. But Janet left the country with her family soon after that, and Mumbi chose to keep a low profile as a university lecturer after Janet left, especially as her husband, an historian, had been arrested as a political agitator.
In the 80s a lot of theatre performances went on at Kenyatta University, but I didn’t hear much about them as my focus was more on cultural festivals and performances based in and around the Nairobi city centre where many foreign cultural centres were supporting theatre practitioners. In that regard, there were plays performed in English but supported by the Italians, French, German and Americans. This enabled actors to perform their political sentiments while using the metaphors of foreign cultures.
There were also plays staged at UON directed by John Ruganda and the leading theatre group made up of former university students was The Theatre Workshop. Mshai Mwangola and Mueni Lundi were both there as were Oby Obyerodhiambo, Aghan Odero, Johnny Nderitu, Catherine Kariuki and many others.
The Mbalemwezi Players was another set of theatre practitioners who performed on a semi-professional basis and even had annual awards ceremonies which recognized the role of the media, for which I was quite grateful. This was because several of the members had business and marketing backgrounds and understood the role that media played in publicizing their work and attracting audiences.
SCHOOLS DRAMA FESTIVAL
From the 50s, the European settlers established the Kenya Schools Drama Festival but it was exclusively for European youth. It wasn’t until 1979 that the first Kenyan, Dr Wasambo Were became Inspector of Education in the Ministry of Education and the man overseeing the Africanization of the Drama Festival. This was a wonderful transformation to watch as the students and their teachers served as scriptwriters as well as cast members. The commitment to theatre was and continues to be nurtured through that vehicle. But there was no theatre arts departments in any Kenyan universities as yet so there wasn’t a big issue of bridging the gap between academics and practitioners.
The donor community got quite involved with funding various theatre groups to create performances at community or grassroots levels to educate the public about such burning social issues as HIV-AIDS, Family Planning and FMG. Many theatre practitioners got involved with such ventures in the name of Theatre for Development and Theatre for Education.
One of the leading groups that started up at this time was called Muijiza Players. Started by James Falkland who ran the Phoenix Players (which never lost the stigma of being an expatriate theatre), Muijiza was led by Caroline Odongo. The players became an avenue for Kenyan playwrights to be born and others to get going as directors, actors etc. Muijiza didn’t survive beyond the 90s but it propelled a number of practitioners into full-time careers in the theatre. A number of smaller theatre groups grew up in this period such as Fanaka Players, Friends Theatre, Festival of Creative Arts and Heartstrings Kenya.
THE NEW MILLENNIUM AND BEYOND
I was out of the country for most of the first decade of 2000-2009 but it was during this period that the first Theatre Arts Department was established at Kenyatta University. Several years later, more Theatre Arts departments were established at Moi and Maseno Universities. These departments have apparently had very little contact with theatre practitioners like Heartstrings and FCA.
But this conference is highlighting the need for greater collaboration between the academics and the theatre practitioners. I know I am missing a number of theatre groups and productions such as the revival of Nairobi City Players (formerly all European) by Kenyans. Strathmore University is another private institution that has taken theatre very seriously. And a group like The Performance Collective is promoting storytelling which is carrying on from the Sigana Storytellers, a group started in the 2000s.
The point I wish to make in conclusion is that a great deal has been conducted since Kenyan Independence. There is so much I almost forgot two important Theatre Institutions which were established, one in the 1970s at Kenya National Theatre, the other in the 1980s at the French Cultural Centre. Both were unaffiliated with academic institutions but both played important pedagogical roles when there were no theatre training centres in Kenya at the time: the first was the Nairobi Drama School led by Tirus Gathwe; the other was the Nairobi Theatre Academy. Neither one has been covered well by the media but they can serve as important sites for research into the history of Kenyan theatre. Also, a number of Kenyans performed in European stage productions and a few, like John Sibi-Okumu have carried on their love for theatre. But many more have gotten caught up in other life styles and careers.
So I hope that both theatre academicians and practitioners will be more aggressive in making contacts with the media and getting themselves into publications as well as on the radio and television to let the wider public gain knowledge of the vitality of Kenyan theatre and also encourage them to come out and attend productions.
Thanks again the KITF, KU and UNESCO