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Nairobi sings ode to phenomenal woman

By Kiundu Waweru | March 7th 2015

The Phoenix Theatre is known for staging thought-provoking plays, both original scripts from Kenyan playwrights and also adaptations, but on Thursday last week, the stage took another life.

It was a night of dramatised poetry, song and dance that left the audience clapping, cheering and thrilled. This was the opening night of the 'The Caged Bird Sings', a Tone Communications, in partnership with the US Embassy, adaptation of Maya Angelou’s poems.

The performance, which took close to two hours can best be described by 'New York Times' book review of Maya’s autobiography, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The reviewer described Maya as an author “who writes like a song, and like the truth. The wisdom, rue and humour of her storytelling are born on a lilting rhythm completely her own”.
The stage was wrought with this description, with Maya’s poems, lyrically written, given life and rhythm.

The cast was backed by a live band with Nicholas Moipei, father of songbirds The Moipei Quartet, on the keyboard and they incorporated Maya’s songs and poetry with own compositions and rearrangements of Maya’s.

Seraphine Moipei was in the house, hitting the stage and a vocal high in a beautiful solo rendition of 'Beloved', her own composition. She also did an instrumental duet with Collins Onyango, in a rendition of 'Don’t Worry' tinged with own improvisation. Saraphine’s flute merged with Onyango’s saxophone in a melodious and cheeky harmony that was at once entertaining and soothing.

Onyango also recited the poem of the title, 'The Caged Bird Sings'; intertwining the spoken word with the melodious Sax. Caged bird is symbolic of the era of the black slave trade in America, or even the segregation which gave rise to the civil rights movement.

Raped by stepfather

Yes, it was not a night of all entertainment, but of thought provoking and awakening messages. Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 was raised in St Louis and Stamps, Arkansas.

A celebrated poet, producer, memoirist and filmmaker, her writings were inspired by the injustices of life she witnessed firsthand growing up in the 1930s and 1940s in the American south with its history of brutality and racial discrimination.

After the publication of her autobiography 'I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings', in 1970, of which she was inspired to write by writer James Baldwin, Maya became famous, and was synonymous with the civil rights movement. She had worked with Malcolm X, before he was assassinated. She also worked with Martin Luther King Jr, before he also was assassinated, devastating Maya.

Maya was abandoned by her parents at the age of three, and raped by a stepfather at the age of eight, an experience, which left her almost mute and a recluse.

It is this themes of pain, deep thought and consciousness, and beliefs in the goodness of all humans despite race, colour or cultural background that informed the writings, brought to life by the work produced and directed by 'The Standard’s' writer, George Orido.

On matters race, Maya immortalised her feelings in the famous line and uttered at the Phoenix stage, we are more alike than we are unlike.

Before the show, American ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, gave a brief address, saying that Maya Angelou’s work helped to define America and he hopes the production will help unite Kenya and the US more.

And the mostly young and unknown cast went out of its way to show both the African and the American that Maya represented. It opened with the dancers in Maasai traditional regalia dancing to rhythmic African beats. Then followed dramatisation of poems; an ode to Africa, America, Men and Women and even love.

They celebrated Kenyans doing great in America. “Hail Barrack Obama (of course), true black president, cheer Lupita Nyong’o, the Hollywood star, Go, go go, Daniel Odongo, you American football great, David Otunga, the WWE Wrestling Bull,” they crooned.

Pole danced

Maya was a prolific writer and some of her poems are renown across the world like anthems including 'On the Pulse of Morning', broadcast live in 1993 when Maya performed it during President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.

Then there is the 'Phenomenal Woman', which famously flows, 'I’m a woman, Phenomenally'. Phenomenal woman. That is me.” It was performed memorably by Terry Wambui a newcomer who just finished secondary education last year.

Indeed it came as surprise that most of the cast was young, some having sat for KCSE last year, while others are in college.

The star of the night would be Claire Etaba, 21, a confident mass communication student, who received wild cheers for her solo performance in 'Still I Rise' and 'Poor Girl an Ode to Love'.

Then there was Kieran Kirema, 22, who says he was born funny. On hitting the stage, all he needed was to pull a face, or smile and the audience would cheer. Mary Kamau, all of 18-years-old, had a scene where she sassily pole danced, without batting an eyelid.

Of this, George Orido, a lil’ bit with an American accent said on stage, “I do not work with stars. I make stars.”

The production showed the whole weekend to a sold-out house.

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