By Margaretta wa Gacheru (23 January 2019)
A most marvelous musical theatre experiment has been underway this past fortnight at The Elephant, the performing arts centre and artistic base of veteran musician Eric Wainaina and theatre producer Sheba Hirst.
The third edition of the NBO Musical Theatre Initiative Workshop is the brainchild of Eric, Sheba and dramaturg Roberta Levitow from the world-renowned Sundance Institute in Utah. As Senior Program Associate-International with Sundance, Roberta has worked with Eric in previous scriptwriting workshops for more than a decade.
But their current initiative is so incredibly ambitious that it promises to totally transform Kenya’s cultural scene in ways that not only embrace music and theatre and storytelling. It’s committed to creating no less than 15 original works of musical theatre that have been conceived, composed, and exquisitely crafted by no less than 40 Kenyan creatives, including writers, poets, composers, instrumentalists and lyricists.
“It was Eric who reached out to me with this idea of developing musical theatre in Kenya,” says Roberta who has previously developed new works for the stage in US, UK, the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa (including Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia).
Eric and Sheba’s vision of creating “a body of new musical theatre works that tell original homegrown and regional stories” has evolved ever since. “It’s been a process,” says Roberta who describes her role in the initiative as “mentor and consultant” to the project.
The first edition of the NBO Workshop took place in November of 2016 and was relatively small by comparison to the number of creatives who took part in the two weeks-long workshop that ended yesterday. Nonetheless, writers like John Sibi-Okumu, Wacuka Mungai Aleya Kassam, Aroji Otieno and of course Eric were among those who are still part of the process.
But between the first and second editions of the NBO workshops, Roberta linked up with the world-acclaimed New York University Tisch School of the Arts. As such graduate lecturers from Tisch took part in both the second and third editions of the workshops.
Tisch’s Deborah Brevoort and Fred Carl came to the Elephant in June 2018. And early this year, Fred returned with Roberta to participate in the workshop’s third edition. Fred shared his experience as not only a composer and musical director but also an educator whose specialty is in training artists to collaborate in the multi-disciplinary art form known as musical theatre.
This past Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, the Kenyan creatives attending the third workshop presented bits of their theatrical ‘works in process.’ But even as each set of artists presented only small portions of their still-evolving productions (the maximum time given to any one of the 15 was 15 minutes), their performances were awe-inspiring.
That’s largely because Eric and Sheba assembled incredible talents, including writers like Mugambi Nthiga (who’s working with Eric on ‘Three-Ten’), Sitawa Namwalie (with Lydia Owano Akwabi on ‘The Escape’), Laura Ekumbo, Anne Moraa and Aleya with Wanja Wohoro (on ‘Weaver Bird – Field Marshall Muthoni’), Elsaphan Njora with Tim Arinaitwe (on ‘Zaphan’) and Paul Kades and Benjamin Kabaseke with Tetu Shani and Vinny Ngugi (on ‘Kabaseke’) among many others.
Eric modestly admits that four of the 15 are concepts that he came up with. But as all his co-creators were either unavailable or involved in other works, his four were not featured centrally in the workshop. Nonetheless, he was able to share small bits from ‘Pani Puri’ (on which he’s working with Aleya Kassam and Rushab Nandha), ‘Three-Ten’ (with Mugambi, Stuart Nash and others), ‘Starlight’ (with Wacuka Mungai) and ‘DJ Lwanga’ which is his solo creation as far as story (or ‘book’), lyrics and music are concerned.
The other evolving musicals include ‘Don’t Turn off the Lights’ by Mwendie Mbugua and Tina Nduba-Banja with Kanji Mbugua, ‘Bandassary’ by the Too Early for Birds Collective, ‘Akenya’ by John Sibi-Okumu with his sons Jason and Jacob, ‘Magic Man’ by Danson Kiundi, ‘Deporting’ by Bien Barasa, ‘Nairobae’ by Aroji Otieno and Barbara ‘Sage’ Ng’eno and “Rambo Bambo Boom’ by Mayonde Masya Music, Christina Banja and Eugene Kanyugo.