The 420-seater theatre is packed to the brim, and an air of expectation is palpable. Then distant voices permeate the still air, growing gradually in warm harmony.
The Sarafina cast has just started their long awaited show with a powerful rendition of a Zulu celebratory song, sang in times of happiness.
In a crescendo, the serenading song comes to an abrupt end in a heroic viva pose as the melodies and spirits of Bongeni Ngema’s 1990s musical come live at the Kenya National Theater.
It is a deafening and mirth applause to the cast who this night had kept the audience waiting for close to one hour because of a request to await the Croatia versus France World Cup final come to a conclusive end thousands of miles away in Moscow, Russia.
Sarafina is the story of students’ riots in Soweto townships in protest of apartheid ways and its dehumanising, racist and stagnating approach against the black.
It is a mix of music, dance, dialogue and sheer confrontational drama. It depicts a teacher in class (Makamzee Mwatela) teaching history beyond the distorted curriculum provided by the Boers.
“I teach them History, their history from the selected books and few additional reading materials,” she tells the tough looking, blood thirsty Afrikaans Boer Inspector of police played by Gilad Millo.
Her drive to correct the half-truths in the books leads to her firing and she faces the brutal and dreaded apartheid torture squad ably led by the ruthless officer, played by Patrick Oketch. They suspect she is part of a network of growing nationalistic movement against white minority rule.
But her sacking is received with anger and leads to school riots; police fire shoot the rioting students, killing dozens in cold blood.
The musical ends by suggesting such activities saw South African anti-apartheid crusader Nelson Mandela released from prison, later becoming the first ever democratic leader of his nation.
“The election of Barack Obama, the first black American to lead the most powerful nation, indicates that the world has come a long way in recognising that the colour of one’s skin can never determine their ability to lead,” goes part of the soliloquy at the end of the musical. Brenda Wairimu gives a good account of herself as she portrays Sarafina in consummate fashion, leading the famed song ‘Freedom is coming tomorrow’. Musician Hellen Mtawali, acting as Sarafina’s mother, offers the much-needed dose of laughter with her witty ad libs. When I watched it last Sunday I thought the few change breaks should have live music from the orchestral pit as opposed to playback in a few occasions.
“Well, this is one of my best musicals but also the most challenging technically,” said Stuart Nash at the end of a show that had realised a full house. But give it to the production, lighting including fire scenes has been well executed to bring to life this powerful production.
That bullet shot in one of the student’s head with real fire oozing out of the pistol is one of the many effects that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.
“We are serious about bringing back the audience into the theatre. This show has pulled full houses and we are happy,” said Nicholas Moipei, chairman of Kenya Cultural Centre Governing Council.
Today (Sunday) is the last day to watch this performance that will warm a rather chilly afternoon, with two shows slated for 3pm and 6pm.