By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 1 August 2018)
Maya Angelou was prescient when she wrote the iconic poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’ in the late Seventies. Last weekend at Kenya National Theatre, I saw so many phenomenal women on stage acting and assisting as crew in ‘The Brazen Edition’ of (the theatre troupe) Too Early for Birds that I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!
Seriously, I have never seen a production that was totally owned, operated, conceived, enacted and embellished all by Kenyan women. (Even men were played by women!)
But that was what the three scriptwriters, Aleya Kassam, Anne Moraa and Laura Ekumbo achieved together with a tremendous team of exceptional actors, dancers, set designers, technicians, stage manager and director.
But the women did even more than that. For theirs was a performance that not only combined passionate poetry, vigorous dance, and exquisite storytelling with an expansive view of remarkable (and rebellious) Kenyan women who the writers and full cast vowed never to forget.
Those not-to-be forgotten legendary souls included freedom fighters like Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza, Wangu wa Makeri, Philomena Chelagat Mutai, Zarina Patel and even one iconoclastic yet nameless woman warrior (possibly Auko) who beguiled, outwitted and then brought down Luanda Magere, the legendary Man of Stone.
Yet it was equally the way each of their heroic stories were told by a room-full of awesome storytellers and then reenacted by Legends (Nyokabi Macharia), assisted by Anne Moraa (playing Men with gutsy gusto) that made Brazen such an important, unprecedented and inspirational show.
For their stories were framed within the memories of the Cucu (Sitawa Nambalie), her care-givers Beatrice (Suki Wanza Nyadawa) and Bosi (Mercy Mbithe Mutisya) and her one-time women’s history students, all of whom huddled around their retired, revered and very wise history professor. Then together, they vividly revived and dramatized these courageous female freedom fighters’ lives.
Employing theatrical devices that worked remarkably well, the scenes flowed seamlessly (apart from one brief lapse after the GQ Dancers revved us up at the outset). Director Wanjiku Mwawuganga made excellent use of the massive National Theatre stage as one side was made over into a cosy sitting room for Cucu and her adoring entourage. The other was where history (or rather herstory) was reenacted before our eyes as their stories were first told in turn by Cucu and her flamboyant former students and then the attention would turn to Legend’s reenactment of our heroines’ incredible lives.
The genius of keeping the infinitely talented Nyokabi in the role of Legends meant that she became a kind of shape-sifter, enacting practically all our historic heroines. She first dramatized the story of Mekatilili who led the Mijikenda against the British colonizer defying stereotypes associated with gender, age, intellect and strategic leadership.
Then she became Wangu as her rise to chiefdom was salaciously interpreted by Lilian (Elsie Akinyi Oluoch), the beautiful sex worker who might have embellished Wangu’s story just a bit.
Legends also took on the part of the nameless heroine who outwitted Luanda Magere. She even took on the role of Zarina Patel, although much of her extraordinary life experience was also narrated by Aleya.
It was only Chelagat Mutai and Field Marshall Muthoni that Legends did not personally portray. The intrepid MP was revisited with actual audio clips of her speaking. And Field Marshall Muthoni (who like Zarina came to see one performance of Brazen) got to watch Sitawa shape-sift from being Cucu to becoming the venerable Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and only female Field Marshall appointed by Dedan Kimathi.
All their performances were electrifying, especially those of storytellers Bosi, Lilian, Beatrice, Nakagwa (Laura Ekumbo), the pregnant woman who debunked myriad myths about ‘the joys of pregnancy’ and even Aleya who clearly got a thrill retelling Zarina’s revolutionary life experience.
And while Brazen managed to provide an exceptional ‘herstory’ lesson that both enlightened and entertained, Cucu also explained why great women’s stories had often gotten lost. It’s because up until quite recently, it hadn’t been women writing the history books.
But now that this mighty troika of women writers have shown us how well women can write their own history and dramatize it as well, Aleya, Anne and Laura have presented us with a challenge. It’s to start recording our own stories of great women that we know and who might also be forgotten if we don’t pick up the threads of their lives and weave them into elegant tapestries and historic tales of heroic Kenyan women.