Currently, a ticket that grants you entry into the main auditorium at the Kenya National Theatre to watch a play will cost you the equivalent of between US$4 and US6. At Phoenix Players, also in Nairobi, a ticket goes for between US$6 and US$10. The plays staged at these venues will, more often than not, exclusively be in English, which is not the most widely spoken tongue despite its status as the official language in Kenya. In a country where reportedly half or more of the citizenry lives below US$1 a day, and where the language of immediate use is Kiswahili and its myriad versions (sheng- a mixture of local languages, Kiswahili and English), the practiced theatre can be said to be elitist. FRED MBOGO reports.
The exercise of going to watch a play may suggest that one’s place in society is among the slightly comfortable middle or upper class, who have disposable incomes and whose experience with the English language is expansive. Where does the person limited in terms of monetary means or by language, quench his entertainment tastes particularly those to do with theatre?
The street is teeming with talent. The sounds and sights of the performers sometimes disturb, often confront, but mostly delight the eyes and ears of the ordinary passer-by. However, these forms of performances do not in many ways conform to the conventions of the plays presented in theatre houses. Spontaneity is the key element of these street performances. Unlike the performances staged at the theatre houses, street performances are often delivered unconsciously without the benefit of preparation as they are mostly part of the character of the streets. They are crafted at the spur of the moment and are part of the daily process of making money.
Take the case of a typical market place such as West Market of Eldoret townin western Kenya. This market, whose main product is mitumba (second hand clothes), operates throughout the week but Fridays are the most popular days to both buyers and sellers. As early as nine o’clock in the morning the market is alive with buyers and sellers engaged in numerous bargain duels. On the one hand the sellers provide the entertainment while the buyers watch in amusement. The show is meant to invite spenders to the various stalls.
The antics of the sellers include singing, dancing and acting. Their “stage” is made of the artificial mountains created by the second hand clothes that they deal in. They are “costumed” to be in rhythm with their performances as the men amongst them adorn female clothing. Their songs are crafted to create in the mind of the customers the idea of low price and quality of product at the same time. Hence the simplicity of such repetitive lyrics as Beba Mama beba ‘Nyumba iwe sawa’ (Carry away, mama, carry away,so your house may be in order). These lyrics always have double meanings where words such as “house” may mean “marriage.”
The singing is spiced up with a good combination of voices and might be deemed rehearsed as different soloists keep taking up the songs in turns. This means that sellers from different stalls often form a “company” of singers, dancers and actors that avail the aesthetics that tie the buyer’s subconscious within their created theatre space. The sharing of “parts” so that each of the sellers has his or her time to put in her individual lyrics or words should give customers a chance to sample the different “characters” and what they offer.
The use of these theatrical skills is necessary as it serves to coat the many embarrassing moments that sometimes go with shopping for things considered “private” in the open air. For starters, anything from underpants, bras and all manner of items are sold in these stalls. A young man selling bras may, for instance, find it tricky explaining to a customer about her bust size or the advantages of one kind of bra over the other. At the same time, customers who wish to buy underpants may want to buy them under a cover since they might not want the world to know where they do their shopping, especially of these small clothes. The theatrics gives customers a chance to imagine the whole process of buying as a game where one takes a role that will come to an end once they are out of that space. These methods as employed at West Market in Eldoret can be found in many of the markets in the cities and towns of Kenya and East Africa, including Nairobi’s Gikomba.
The other form of practice that one may encounter which may be deemed performance- based is street preaching. Preachers have resorted to employing any manner of theatrics to attract their audiences. Nairobi’s Jevanjee Gardens and Uhuru Park have over the years hosted many a city preacher. The theatrics here include the good use of voice, interspersing the preaching with music, consistent appeals to emotions through facial expressions and gestures and use of colourful clothes to form backgrounds for pulpits. Preachers also love to involve their audiences in their acts so that healing becomes part of their show. Whether healing really takes place or not is another matter but many preachers resort to using prayers that push whomever they touch to the ground. These acts bring some level of believability to their audiences. Incidentally, such acts attract curious audiences who wish to confirm if actual healing takes place or people are actually pushed to the ground by “God’s power”.
The idea of suspense plays a major role in these gatherings as everyone awaits the “faith” induced characters who have crutches to start running. And when they do start running after the preachers have prayed audiences applaud like they would a lovely act from a staged play. The idea that audiences can sing along, clap, cheer when people are “healed” and are allowed to shed tears in empathy with characters from the preacher’s stories is in itself quite therapeutic. These scenes become important for the audiences as they are able to “wash” themselves off various life stresses with promises from the preacher. In joining the preacher’s shouting, singing, dancing and in condemning the “enemy” (the devil) audiences feel as though they are winning a war or shall win the many little wars that have ravaged their personal lives.
Towards the late 1980s and early 1990s in downtown Nairobi, a famous street comedian who went by the stage name Nyengese entertained many. He eventually became a constant feature in Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s Music Time, a prime time programme presented by veteran broadcaster Fred Obachi Machoka. His style included his costuming and make up which completed by a wig on his head presented a pregnant woman dealing with the many absurdities of life. His audience was composed of people in town going about their own business but who notice his looks as a pregnant woman in need of ventilating her frustrations about the world. Though most of his performances were based on a spontaneous rendition, his two accompanying performers would at times engage in short mini-plays not lasting longer than a minute or would conclude a general comment he had made. His acts were part of and led to the growth of many street performers who copied his style.
Nyengese’s comedies can be said to also have provided room in the audience to assess their own lives and prejudices. By taking up the role of a pregnant woman, his emphasis seemed to have been to portray the life of the vulnerable. Perhaps his suggestion was that we are all as vulnerable as the woman but that we should be as spirited as “she” is by laughing at our oppressive situations. This again presents us with the notion that street theatre does seem to endear a sense of self discovery in ourselves as well as a search for the healing of our wounds rendered by the difficulties of modern living.
Indeed Nyengese, dubbed the father of stand-up street comedy in Kenya, can rightly be said to have inspired current stand up comedies on television, “Riverwood” kind of films and the rise of comedians such as Walter Mong’are “Nyambane” and “Mwalimu King’ang’i” by Churchill who also double up as MCs at social functions besides being popular FM radio presenters in Kenya.
From acrobats, to snake handlers and charmers, to men singing along to lyrics from cassette players as they sell the music and many other forms, street theatre’s relevance is evident. It is important to understand it in the process of searching for the unconventional ways in which aesthetics have been packaged. What differentiates it from what can be called conventional theatre is the risqué nature of the streets. That includes the possibilities of being mugged, the sun blazing hot on your face, agents of the law (the police) declaring your gathering as unlicensed, and distractions from other elements of the street such as loud music from public service vehicles such as matatus or buses.
The language of use by these street performers is often Kiswahili or Sheng, and this makes the performance to present an immediacy not so often found in the staged plays at our various theatre houses. Could the success served variously by these forms of street theatre be employed by stage directors and producers in realising a theatre more in tune with the aspirations of the majority?