Xavier Nato’s tragi-comical adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic love story, Romeo and Juliet, came back to the Kenya National Theatre last weekend after doing well the first time ‘round late last year.
It’s no wonder Opiyo and Juliet was called back by insistent audiences, some who loved the sound track of Nato’s musical, especially the voice of Opiyo, which was played by Ken Aswani. Others especially liked the lovely choral background that harmonized beautifully with Aswani and Opiyo’s cousin cum ‘body guard’ Kevin (Don Odero). Or possibly they were partial to the rapper-storyteller (Sao Mukombo) who injected an especially vibrant and contemporary rhythm and sound to the show. Either way, you could hear people actually singing along as the musical progressed, so clearly they’d seen the show at least once before.
The public call-back for Nato’s musical theatre also must have come from people who simply loved the original Shakespearean story and liked the way the playwright reinterpreted it within a Kenyan context. But even those who were unfamiliar with Shakespeare said they appreciated the show because of the way it hit the nail hard on outmoded cultural barriers even as it exposed the reality that many of those unfortunate biased attitudes still exist among certain segments of both the Kikuyu and Luo communities.
I appreciate all of the points noted above; although I confess, I did not see the production the first time it came to the National Theatre. Now I say ‘my bad’ and not just because I was told, after the fact that I’d missed one of the finest Kenyan musical of 2018. That didn’t mean much to me at the time although I did feel sad for missing the production. I also appreciate that ‘Opiyo and Juliet’ was the only authentically Kenyan musical of 2018, meaning it was scripted, scored and staged all by Kenyans. All the others, however outstanding, were imported from the West. The castings were all Kenyan, but the shows were scripted either by Westerners or in Sarafina’s case, by a South African. So while last year was spectacular in terms of seeing several outstanding musicals, only O & J was a fully Kenyan one.
To me the production was indeed a major achievement in Kenyan theatre. It was a feat pulled off because Nato himself is not only an excellent director. He also did a fine job casting key characters. For instance, the show couldn’t have come off as effectively as it did without Aswani having such a captivating voice. Both he and Don Odero who played cousin Kevin, are professional musicians (Aswani is even involved as a contestant in the TV competition ‘I can sing’.)
The rest of the cast, especially the principles Juliet (Fulky Akinyi), her brother Wachira (Brian Irungu) and the lovers’ parents, the Otienos (Robinson Mudavadi and Letty Valarie) and the Mwauras (Andrew Smollo and Shirleen Kadilo) were also excellent.
And given Nato’s background in theatre—he started writing and directing plays back in secondary school, and he’s been writing scripts for Schools Drama Festival candidates since 2003, one shouldn’t be surprised by the way the production itself flowed seamlessly from one scene to the next without a break or time lapse or even an uncomfortable hiccup or pause.
Having founded Milliz Productions in late 2017, Opiyo and Juliet is actually Xavier’s third production with a fourth one in the works for May. The previous two (‘Our Father is Naked’ and ‘Dello is Dead’) were both comedies, since Nato says he knows how Kenyan audiences are more attracted to light entertainment than to serious stuff. But he took the risk of adapting the Shakespearean tragedy by injected enough comedy into ‘Opiyo and Juliet’ to allow audiences to laugh at the same time as the show grappled with the serious theme of tribalism. Fortunately, the risk has paid off.
The original concept of Milliz Production came out of Nato’s extensive experience working with the Schools Drama Festival and especially with the young talents who he saw had very few places to go with their creativity once they graduated from school. So the idea of the company is largely to recruit youth (who he calls ‘raw talent’) to produce shows and at the same time, mentor them into becoming outstanding performers and thespians generally.
Nato’s idea of assisting the youth ignited the interest of his long-time friend and fellow theatre-lover Senator Cleophas Malalah. So much so that the Senator has been assisting in the production of Millez’s show from the beginning.