“I want to thank you very very much for doing this and I hope that you enjoy performing it, and I hope your audience will equally enjoy your performance.”
This was the message Ngugi wa Thiong’o sent to the cast and crew of the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio as they got ready to perform his and Ngugi Mirii’s play, ‘I will Marry When I want’, ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda’ in Kikuyu.
It is easy to see why Ngugi would be upbeat about the play that was staged at the Kenya National Theatre over two weeks last month. This was probably the first time it was being performed so comprehensively before a Kenyan audience, and in both English and Kikuyu. When the play was staged by the Kamirithu Community and Cultural Centre in 1977, it was banned and barely a month later, both authors were arrested. The centre itself was demolished by armed policemen in 1982.
“It’s definitely the first time it’s ever been done in English, in Kenya,” said the producer/director Stuart Nash.
“It was a satire, but alas, what I thought was an exaggeration, is no longer a matter of laughter for a continent that continues to develop the West in exchange for good accents,” wrote Ngugi in The Standard on April 24.
For Nash and his crew and cast, bringing the play to life was not without its anxious moments. “There was a lot of stress, but also, I was aware that I’m a white person producing and directing a play that is kind of anti-white in some areas. I was a bit worried about what the reception would be and whether people felt we did the show justice or not,” said Nash.
“I’m happy. But I would say mostly relieved that people do seem to like it,” he said.
They also decided to do special performances for students to make the show much more widely accessible. “The reason we have a lot of students coming in is because, you know, plays are supposed to be there written to be seen not read,” said Nash.
The nature of the play meant Nash and his team had to introduce a split stage to accommodate the play’s various settings. But he has had a lot of experience with shows with a large cast and different settings. He previously directed hit play ‘Sarafina’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, both featuring a diverse cast and settings.
“We are used to doing musicals, which have multiple locations... we’re used to dealing with big casts,” he said.
The choice of language was another thing, being done in both English and Kikuyu, which presented its own challenges. But Nash had a reason for it, English to reach as many people as possible and Kikuyu because that was the original language the play was written in.
“The play was originally written in Kikuyu, and however good translation is, certain things are not quite the same. Like a lot of the idioms and sayings once translated into English, are not quite the same.”
Not surprisingly, the Kikuyu shows sold out first.
But switching between the languages wasn’t so easy for the crew and cast. He himself doesn’t speak Kikuyu. “I’m directing in English and then they do the blocking and everything in the Kikuyu version,” said Nash.
“We did have discussions in the play in rehearsals about why is your character doing that.... But on the whole, I asked really good professional, well seasoned actors to do the roles so they would automatically bring that element of what the motivation is for the act.”
Nice Githinji, who plays a leading role said she felt like they were doing two different shows at the same time “because they do not feel the same.”
“That has been the most challenging thing switching from English. And your mind doesn’t know it. You see, sometimes we will do an English rehearsal and then in the middle you see people giggling, you realise you’re speaking Kikuyu,” she said.
Sentiments shared by Mwaura Bilal, also a lead actor. “I have never done a full Kikuyu show. It was amazing, but for the first show, I have never had such stage fright,” he said.
But why this play?
“I didn’t particularly choose this because it’s African or Kenyan or Kikuyu. I chose it because we were looking for something that would be as popular or a bigger show than Sarafina,” said Nash.
“So now I’m terrified. How are we going to top this? What do we do next?”
He says they might now look to performing another Ngugi play, ‘The Trial of Dedan Kimathi’ or Francis Imbuga’s ‘Betrayal in the City’. He is aware that the play came at a crucial time, heading to elections. “It’s such a unique set of circumstances... all of these elements, the fact that it’s not been done for so long, the history of it. It’s an election year, we’re doing in English and Kikuyu. It’s just a whole combination of things all coming together. I don’t know if I’ll ever do another show like this.”