By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 8 May for BD 10 May)
Just because a theatre group is called ‘wholesome entertainment’ doesn’t mean it can’t produce spicy, sassy and socially relevant productions like the one they staged last weekend at Alliance Francaise.
‘Poison Ivy’ is a family saga that digs deep into the human drama of sibling jealousies and joys, loyalty and betrayal, rivalry and the ritual of putting blood ties before love. Seth Busolo is one Kenyan playwright who sees the dramatic value of local news and its potential for being reshaped and then staged as powerful productions like ‘Poison Ivy.’ Not that one can point to a particular local family and identify how it correlates with the play. Instead, Busolo draws upon local sagas and then adds his own insights, characters and inciting emotions.
The play also has its criminal elements, two of which are all too common in Kenya today. One is the problem of bribery and the ease with which people expect shortcuts to get them out of serious crimes, such as hit-and-run accidents which are one of the cruelest, most careless criminal deeds that often gets ignored, especially when it affects poor people who rarely have recourse to honest justice from police.
In ‘Poison Ivy’, the driver who tries to run after hitting someone on the road is Ivy (Njeri Ngige), sister to Chris (Brian Ogola), the ‘man in the middle’ of what becomes a sort of ‘civil war’ between Ivy and his newly-wedded wife, Olive (Anita Damiaro).
Ivy was speeding and carelessly hit someone who dies, but she doesn’t even stop to see if there is something she can do to help the person she knocked. Nonetheless, in this case, the cops do the necessary and nab Ivy who gets taken to the cells.
It’s in the opening moments of the play that we get the first inkling that all is not well at Chris’s house, the home where he and Ivy grew up and where Olive has recently moved in. Chris is about to bail out his sister, but Olive suggests he leave her at the station overnight since it will ‘teach her a lesson.’ But it’s Friday and if he doesn’t help Ivy now, she’ll sleep in the cells all weekend. Olive doesn’t seem to care, but Chris does. Not heeding the advice of his wife, he favors his sister. He takes the short-cut and gets Ivy released, paying a little ‘extra’ to the cops for letting her out in spite of the lethal damage she has caused.
What we don’t yet know is that Chris feels obligated to assist his sister since he supposedly was told to do so by his dad from his death bed. According to Ivy who claimed to have been with their father in his final moments, the dad’s last words were instructing Chris to always take care of his little sis. Chris never questions the veracity of Ivy’s version of their dad’s last words.
Because the daddy’s words, Chris cuts Ivy a lot of slack, even when she openly airs her hostility towards Olive. He doesn’t even blink as Ivy abuses Olive and lets it be known that she wants this woman to be gone. She clearly wants her brother all to herself, as if there’s a latent element of incest in her feelings for him. It’s only when it looks like he is about to see Ivy’s wish come true that he begins to show his genuine feelings for his wife.
Feeling sorry for the family whose daughter died in the hit-and-run, Olive goes to see them and share her condolences. But the family, thinking Olive is Ivy, the driver of the culprit-car, beats Olive senseless. She almost dies, and it’s only then that Chris begins to question his own rock-solid loyalty to Ivy.
But what really turns the tide of his emotions comes when he meets his uncle, the brother to his dad, in hospital. (Both are visiting Olive.) The uncle tells Chris that Ivy was not even there at the father’s death bed. Nor did the dad say Chris was responsible to take care of Ivy for life.
Ivy’s selfish contrivance jolts him to realize he has done his wife wrong. But it may too late for him to make amends with Olive. The cops take Ivy away to jail but the play ends without us knowing if Olive forgives him or not. Would you? There’s the open question each of us is left to answer himself.