By Ogova Ondego
Published September 23, 2002
As you enter the bar (sorry, theatre), the beer-drinkers are dead silent, transfixed on the stage ahead. As a piteous-looking man begs for mercy from a street urchin, you come to realise that the beggar is the former autocratic President whose policies have created thousands of beggars and led to the ‘grabbing’ (illegal allocation) of public utilities, including toilets, in Kenya.
In a twist of fate, the former leader has found himself thrown out of State House and onto the streets among the hoi polloi; he and his leutenants seek shelter in a filthy public toilet. This is a scene from Makaririra Kioro, a Gikuyu satire by Wahome Mutahi and Wahome Karengo that can loosely be translated as “They will Cry in a Latrine.”
This almost prophetic play on the ousting of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) is just one of the plays testifying to the explosion in Kikuyu theatre on the Kenyan stage since the early 1990s when the hitherto intolerant Kenyan government relaxed its clampdown on artists. Indeed, the emergence of Gikuyu theatre is proving to be a phenomenon in Kenya. With its vibrancy, it has many people making a living from it as actors, writers of original (not adapted) plays and directors with their own innovative styles suitable for their ‘stage’ and audience.
Although most people in this eastern African nation are shy (nay, ashamed) to be heard conversing in vernacular, the Kikuyu do not appear to have such a problem. Rather than hold plays in theatres, they do it in bars and other social places. This has made their detractos to refer to their art as ‘bar trivia’ and ‘tribal drama’. But this has not killed it. Not even the 1978 detention of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the then leading proponent of ‘theatre-to-the-people’ movement following his founding of Kamirithu Theatre in Limuru in which villagers starred to the chagrin of authorities, has snuffed life out of Gikuyu theatre.
Whereas the number of patrons to theatre in English and Kiswahili is declining, it is the opposite for the Kikuyu version. It matters not that watching a Kikuyu play costs twice as much as viewing the former. Moreover, a play in Gikuyu runs for more than three months and not just for a few days (usually a weekend) for theatre in English.
Though most Gikuyu plays are usually political satire, the current comedy productions by Wahome Mutahi (Ngoma cia Aka for ‘Madness of women’ or ‘whirlwind’), Wakanyote Njuguna (Aroiga ni Mukuu for ‘Tom Says He’s Dead’) and Eduardo Waigwa (Andu ihererero for ‘People in Hell’) appear to have deviated from this norm.
Ngoma cia aka, written by Mutahi and Karengo, is a farce exploring marital infidelity among wives which men assume is due to madness.
This play is succeeding the long runninng Mutahi and Ndungi Githuku-written Makaririra Kioro at Citrus Whispers Theatre in Ngara, Nairobi.
Critics accuse the likes of Mutahi of cheapening theatre by holding it in what they consider ‘inappropriate’ venues. They also see the development of the Gikuyu genre as one that is being used by the community, usually considered anti-establishment, to push their own political agenda.
On the first accusation, Mutahi says, “A performance can be demeaned only if it is done poorly and not in vernacular or in social places.”
Rather defiantly, newspaper humorist Mutahi says he is no slave of convention or conformity to follow rules just to please purists.
“What bothers me is not about pleasing people but whether the message is passed across to my audience. We are promoting, not cheapening, theatre when we take it to people in bars,” he says.
Mutahi’s co-writer, Karengo, contends they are demystifying theatre and removing the ‘elitist’ tag from it when they stage it in vernacular.
“African theatre cannot be divorced from everyday life. That is why we enact it in social places where people are already gathered,” Karengo says.
But is holding theatre on makeshift stages not working against its development?
Makararira Kioro, for instance, was first held in open air at Citrus Inn. But even as they put up a theatre at Citrus Inn, Mutahi and Karengo argue they will “avoid ‘elaborate props and stage’ in order to maintain our simplicity.”
While acting on improvised stage, the plays usually have no break intervals, curtains opening and closing, or lights dimming, being put off or coming on. Detractors see this as poor directing and stage management.
But what about the accusation of pushing the Kikuyu political agenda; is this what they do?
Mutahi and Karengo say they write not as members of the Kikuyu community but Kenyans.
“It is true the Kikuyu are anti-establishment; but that is not to say we write according to their demands,” Mutahi says. “If our themes confirm their position, this is coincidental.”
Some of the memorable Gikuyu plays in Kenya include the defunct Sarakasi Players’ Ciaigana ni Ciaigana (Enough is Enough) that ran for 18 months from 1991; Mugaathe Mubogothi (His Excellency the Hallucinator) and Igooti ria Muingi of Mutahi and Karengo that went on for nine months in 1995 and 1998, respectively; Profesa Nyoori, also by Mutahi, that was a hit in 1998; and Nyahoro, a 1999 adaptation of The Government Inspector by Mutahi and Professor Ngugi Njoroge. This satirical drama readily connected with the audience in Kenya, a country where almost nothing appears to move in public office unless civil servants are bribed by those seeking service. It ran for six months giving way to Makararira Kioro in 2002. In between Mutahi and Titi Wainaina did Jomo Kenyatta the Man, a play in English that was well received by their loyal audience, Kenyatta having been Kikuyu.
As he stages a farce this time round, Mutahi (who was once detained for allegedly being in possession of a proscribed document in 1986) may not have any reasons for apprehension as he did with Mugaathe Mubogothi in 1995.
“I didn’t know the play would survive. I could see fear etched on the faces of the audience as they watched it,” he says. “As soon as it was over they would put on caps or goggles to disguise their identity and then literally flee fearing arrest and detention.”
But Mugaathe Mubogothi nevertheless ran 100 shows and Mutahi, who does not think enacting drama in vernacular is in any way limiting his audience, has since written seven more plays in Gikuyu.
“Most theatre-goers in this country are Kikuyu. When I translated Mugaathe Mubogothi into Kiswahili in the hope of attracting more theatre lovers, the majority of those who turned up to watch it were Kikuyu. So why bother targeting everyone when I already have my audience?” he poses.
Mutahi says that Wainaina and he wrote Jomo Kenyatta the Man in English hoping it would appeal to all Kenyans, Kenyatta having been the first President of Kenya. But again, more than 80 per cent of the audience turned out to be Gikuyu speakers.
A good play, Mutahi contends, will sell despite the language in which it is written.
“Nikolai Gogol, Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy wrote in their vernacular yet we have their works in English,” he says, predicting a brighter future for vernacular, not just Gikuyu, theatre.
Wakanyote Njuguna, who is staging Aroiga ni mukuu at Wida Motel, says “Going vernacular is the future of theatre in Kenya.”
Njuguna argues that Kenyans need to express themselves in idioms they not only understand and are used to but come naturally without their having to struggle with their phrasing in foreign languages.
“If theatre is about crying and crying is universal, then staging theatre in vernacular is universal,” he says, echoing Mutahi’s sentiments that emotion is natural and is best expressed in one’s first language.
“Writing in vernacular is more expressive and the audience appreciates the rich imagery and symbolism employed,” Mutahi says.
One of the results of theatre in Gikuyu, Mutahi contends, is that other communities are getting emboldened to do plays in their own languages.
Mbugua Keinama says he prefers acting in Gikuyu as opposed to English or Kiswahili because, he says, “It helps me to preserve my language and culture.”
Whereas only a few groups are doing full-length plays in Gikuyu, most are into short dramas or comedies that border on the obscene, according to Mutahi.
Sammy Gikaru, whose Entertainment Masters does some of these comedies, says his productions target middle aged people as they are the only ones with the ability to interpret the wise sayings and proverbs accompanying them.
Gikaru has taken his plays–Wi Sumu (about sugar mummies and sugar daddies), Mwurio Mururu (sweet-bitter), and Mbembe ni ndoge (about AIDS)–to the Kikuyu Diaspora of Mombasa, Nyahururu, Nanyuki and Nakuru.
Peter Kinuthia (Kanyuira) of Wanagatanga Entertainment Troupe does social commentaries to educate families.
“I use the Kikuyu language because the audience insist I do it as certain things are better rendered in it than in English or Kiswahili,” he says, concurring with Gikaru whose attempt to translate Ciaigana ni Ciaigana into Kiswahili turned it into a flop despite its runaway success in Gikuyu.
“This was due to Kiswahili’s inability to be as expressive as Gikuyu,” Gikaru says.
It follows that the successs of Gikuyu theatre lies in its use of figures of speech that have no English or Kiswahili equivalent. Such plays attract middle-aged people conversant in the Gikuyu language and with some disposable income.
But one may wonder what the future portends for this genre that does not appeal to the young people who may be well educated but less conversant in vernacular.
As if aware of this dilemma, Mutahi’s Igiza Productions is now starring the youth in their plays. This, he says, is for continuity of the genre as the younger actors will appeal to their age-mates and attract them to their art.
But the formula that works for the Kikuyu may not do a thing for other communities as the recent dismal performance of Lwanda Magere, a play in Dholuo, demonstrates. Held at the Kenya National Theatre, it failed to attract a sizable audience and its producers had to take it to the Luo lakeside town of Kisumu in an almost desperate attempt to recoup their investment.
The Luo may be the second largest community in Kenya after the Kikuyu, but Lwanda Magere was not taken to them in social places like bars the Kikuyu-style.
Tirus Gathwe, a director who concentrates on drama in Gikuyu, says he takes theatre to the people rather than to bars as, “Theatre is where there are people. We take theatre informally and not in rigid and foreign cocktail suits in buildings designated as theatres.”
So why does Gathwe concentrate on Gikuyu plays?
“Because Gikuyu plays attract more viewers than those done in English,” he says, explaining that “The loyalty of the Kikuyu to their own community and culture–music, dance, drama, broadcasts–is unrivaled. This is the key to the success of Kikuyu theatre.”
The economic might and high population of the community, he adds, makes them a lucrative market.
Once a play has begun in Nairobi, it runs for months before hitting the road on tour of the Kikuyu Diaspora of Central, Rift Valley and Coast provinces. Hence one may conclude that Kikuyu plays thrive on ‘nomadism’ and that any attempt to base it somewhere could lead to failure.
But this may not what Mutahi and Dr Nyamu had in mind when they came up with the idea of hosting Igiza Productions at Citrus Whispers Theatre in Ngara.
Perhaps they had borrowed a leaf from Juja’s Hooting Bay Club where waiters and waitresses rehearse drama, music and dance during weekdays when business is lean and then entertain patrons during weekends.
Unlike bars and clubs that have resident Congolese music bands as an attraction, Citrus Inn and Hooting Bay are turning to theatre in Gikuyu.
Mutahi and Dr Nyamu, while admitting they are experimenting with theatre, say they are confident of attracting many more patrons as their theatre is accessible by matatu, bus, taxi and on foot for 24 hours.
Another secret to the success of Gikuyu theatre is that the number of the cast members is kept to the bare minimum and a production runs for as long as possible.
“We run plays for as long as there are people watching them,” Karengo says.
Gathwe adds that a profitable play is one that puts up at least 14 performances as this gives producers the opportunity to recoup their investment in rehearsals, costumes, props, direction and the cast.