By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted July 16 2019)
The performing arts have always played a critical role in the education of Kenyan youth.
Through the Music, Schools and Colleges Drama Festivals, students have had opportunities to perform and even compete for local, regional and national awards. Churches have also played their part in giving youth the chance to act in Scripturally-based productions so that a professional actor like Martin Githinji (best known for playing Johnny in the popular TV series ‘Sue and Johnny’) can admit he’s been acting in church plays from the age of four.
Yet until quite recently, very few Kenyans have dared to enter either TV, film or stage as a professional. It was considered risky business, and most parents counselled their kids to become doctors, lawyers, accountants or engineers, certainly not professional thespians. For example, one of Kenya’s leading actors in the Seventies was Stephen Mwenesi who starred in several different interpretations of Dedan Kimathi. Yet when he had to make a choice of career, he went into law, not theatre.
John Sibi-Okumu is another thespian who has come close to being a professional, having starred on stage, television and film as well as scriptwriting and directing award-winning productions like Eric Wainaina’s ‘Mo’ Fire’. But even Sibi had a full-time day job teaching French at primary and secondary school levels.
But the tide is turning. Despite dismal signs of a declining theatre scene as witnessed by the demise of Phoenix Players in 2018, there are many more signs that the performing arts can become a career option for Kenyans.
For one thing, Kenyan filmmakers are being recognized both locally and internationally. Films like ‘Supa Modo’, ‘Rafiki’, ‘Nairobi Half-Life’ and ‘Subira’ have won awards and reflect the health of an industry that is getting stronger by the day.
Television has also taken off ever since the rule went down that a high percentage of shows had to be produced locally. “Some people feel it was the opening up of television to local scripts and the call for local content that paved the way for ‘creatives’ to start producing and performing in original Kenyan scripts,” says Mkamzee Mwatale, one of the professional performers who costars in the musical production that opened last night at Kenya National Theatre.
‘Sarafina’, the electrifying tale of Soweto youth standing up to the heinous Apartheid system in South Africa, is being staged for a second time by the Nairobi Performing Arts Academy, much to the delight of the local audiences that missed the first run of NPAS’s ninth (mainly musical) theatre production.
Mkamzee stars, both currently and in the first NPAS Sarafina, as the teacher who strives to instill a sense of revolutionary pride and anti-Apartheid purpose in her students. But back in 2003, she starred in the title role as Sarafina when the musical was first staged in Kenya and the playwright Mbongeni Ngema came to here from South Africa just to see that performance.
Mkamzee is also one of those who has personally witnessed the rising tide of appreciation for the performing arts. She works full time in the field either as an actor, scriptwriter, film producer (for her own ‘8278A Film Studio’). “And I even stage managed [NPAS’s production of] ‘Grease’. She has even served as an acting lecturer at NPAS. “But I got too busy doing other things, so I had to stop,” says the actress possibly best known to TV audiences for her performances in ‘Mali’, ‘Siri’ and ‘Stay’. She also starred in the Kenyan film ‘Lusala’ that just premiered at the Nairobi International Film Festival in June.
‘There’s a sort of symbiotic relationship between film, theatre and TV,” she says. “They are interdependent such that one feeds off the others,” adds Mkamzee who gets paid for all the performance work she does, including when she played Herod in the second NPAS production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’
That symbiotic relationship has been stepped up since Stuart Nash came to town. Invited here from the UK to produce musicals at the Potterhouse School, he got his first interns working with him from Kenyatta University while he was staging ‘Annie’ followed by ‘Oliver’.
Both Mercy Wangui and Fanuel Mulwa worked as interns with Stuart and they’re still with him. Mercy is currently his stage manager for Sarafina and Fanuel plays Crocodile just as he did in the September 2018 staging of the same show.
When asked whether either of them believes the performing arts can provide a viable career path for Kenyan youth, both are emphatic that they certainly can. Wangui, like Mkamzee, says she has never been out of work since she started off with Stuart in 2016. Granted she isn’t always working with NPAS, especially when Stuart is not producing a show. But thus far, with NPAS she has stage-managed everything from Jesus Christ Superstar (twice) and Grease to Caucasian Chalk Circle, Kidogo and both productions of Sarafina. “And when I am not with the Studio, I have stage managed for shows like Dr Zippy Okoth’s ‘Stranger in my Bed’ and the East African Fashion Gala.”
Fanuel feels the performing arts are already providing employment and careers to many Kenyans. And while he’s been in several NPAS shows, including Grease, Caucasian Chalk Circle and both productions of Sarafina, he like Mkamzee has launched his own production company, albeit in theatre not film. That means he also plays multiple roles in the performing arts.
That’s the same strategy Martin Githinji follows. Playing the villain Sabela in Sarafina, Martin like Mkamzee, is probably best known for his TV role as Johnny in the award-winning series ‘Sue and Johnny’. Yet he says the way he succeeds in doing film, TV and theatre professionally is by taking on multiple roles. “When I am not acting, I am either scriptwriting, directing or producing new works,” says Martin who starred as Jesus in NPAS’s second run of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’
But probably the most high-profile performer in Sarafina is Sheila Munyiva who costarred with Samantha Mugatisia in Wanuri Kahui’s trail-blazing film, ‘Rafiki’. “She’s great fun to play opposite,” says Martin who admires her passionate, high-energy approach to her character.
The challenge of musical theatre is that one must not only be able to act; she or he must also be able to dance and sing well. All that is what someone learns at NPAS, although some students have to get used to Stuart’s professionalism which is a strict, no-nonsense style that is unfamiliar to many local thespians.
“It’s true, Stuart is a perfectionist,” says Mercy who adds she has learned so much from him in the more than three years that she has been with NPAS.
“Stuart knows what he wants and has high standards,” says Martin. “Once someone figures out what he expects and strives to meet those expectations, he will have no problem with Stuart.”
Having performed on the West End (London’s equivalent of Broadway in New York) from the age of nine, Stuart has also been a multi-tasker, having written musical scores for an acclaimed TV series like ‘Brideshead Revisited’ as well as producing, directing, conducting and finally founding a school to teach the performing arts.
Currently developing the first performing arts curriculum together with the Curriculum Development Assessment and Certification Council (CDACC), Stuart says NPAS hopes to soon be offering certificates and diplomas in the field.
In the meantime, he has exciting, ambitious works in the pipeline, including plans to produce the stage version of ‘Nairobi Half Life’ and ‘Lion King’.