The lights slowly fade out. The stage grows to pitch dark as the young actors and actresses quietly but quickly retreat backstage. A few seconds later, lights strategically set on all the corners of the theatre faintly illuminate the stage.
The rustic stage design represents a traditional Giriama shrine - one of the Miji Kenda communities along Kenya’s coast that forms part of a rich repertoire of Africa’s cultural heritage, replete with gods and goddesses. A creepy white skull at the centre of the stage amplifies the dramatic effect of the backdrop.
Nikita Wakonyu, the main character, firmly grips a six-foot staff that glows in the dark. It is a Giriama symbol of power and bravery in a fierce battle about to be reenacted on stage.
Wakonyu’s attire - the metallic choker neckpiece, the beaded headband, and the traditional pleated cotton skirt, bring back the character of Mekatilili wa Menza, Kenya’s wonder woman who singlehandedly led the Giriama community to mount one of the earliest resistance against the British in Kenya’s, and indeed, Africa’s colonial history.
Behind her, a team of actors take their positions for the next scene. They all look up to Mekatilili’s staff. The story of Mekatilili wa Menza, the fearless female warrior, and how she inspired one of Africa’s epic resistance battles against the British in the early 19th Century is about to begin.
Welcome to Woodcreek School’s ultra-modern theatre, and the students’ outstanding rendition of history in Mekatilili wa Menza, which premiers on Friday, October 14 through to Sunday, October 16. The choice of artwork, costumes, props, colours, designs, acoustic, and lighting in the 450-seater capacity theatre speaks to a deep meaning of the road to freedom in Kenyan history led by the iconic Mekatilili.
On the right wing, pots, palms, and carvings are used to amplify the traditional shrine scene. Wooden guns and swords are on standby for battle scenes. Coconuts and gourds lean close by for the market scene featuring the women of Makushekushe in the Giriama community.
The school choir gathers round microphones backstage, humming to songs of freedom, war and hope, all carefully choreographed to fit in the action on stage. A rugged log stands out on stage. It is here that Mekatilili’s son, Katilili will be beheaded by the soldiers.
On the other end backstage, grasslands props represent the dangerous wild lands where Mekatilili traversed with her small band of followers. Lewis Xavier Kavoi, who directs Mekatilili wa Menza has the story of one of the most famous heroines in Kenya’s fight for independence at the palm of his hand. The story, he says, starts after the murder of Mekatilili’s husband by the colonists. Mekatillii is then exiled from her community along Kenya’s coastal region to Western Kenya, nearly 1000 km away.
Mekatilili decides to make the long journey back to her motherland, traversing Kenya from Luhya land to Kisii land, across the savannah grasslands into Maasailand before moving into Kikuyu land, where, under the guidance of another icon of women’s courage and bravery - Wangu wa Makeri, she slips into Kambaland and heads back home to the coast.
Mekatili’s journey back home is captured in Kifudu or the dance of death, an ecstatic dance that warns all tribes to beware of the coming of ‘white death.’ On stage, 16-year-old Wakonyu brings out Mekatili’s character flawlessly.
“Mekatilili is the first Kenyan female activist to fight against the colonialists. In my role, I feel like she gave women a voice to stand up for themselves. She managed to rally people together for a common goal, which is a big lesson for me,” says Wakonyu.
According to Wakonyu, the most moving part of the play is the scene where Mekatilili is presented with the head of her son, Katilili, soon after she arrives back in Giriama land from exile. Katilili had taken over his mother’s cause after she was sent to exile. Hobley, the white man’s henchman, orders soldiers to behead Katilili and present his head and body to Mekatilili.
“This is a very touching moment for me. I imagine how much my mum cares for me and imagine how hurtful it would be if she had watched me get beheaded. She definitely would not be the same just like what happened to Mekatilili after her son was killed. She grew stronger and resilient,” says Wakonyu.
Before his murder, Katilili had put up a fierce fight against Hobley, the ultimate symbol of colonial supremacy that had sent his mother to exile. “Hobley is a racist. Playing his role makes me understand how the white colonialists treated our ancestors, how they just came in and took our land,” says 14-year-old Micah Kaboi, who plays Hobley in the show. Nothing seems to kill Mekatilili’s fighting spirit - not even her son’s death. Instead, she grows more determined to fight her tormentors.
These battles and more, the students at Woodcreek School meticulously reenact on stage. For the 60 young actors and actresses supported by about 150 behind the scene crew, the seven-month rehearsal period was an intense but fascinating experience. “The story of Mekatilili teaches the students the importance of working together for a common goal,” says Kavoi, the play’s director.
Ultimately, the production is a giant step in preparing young actors and actresses for acting careers. The production also serves as a mentorship programme where the production’s crew including the scenic designer, producer, director, and stage managers, are assigned students to mentor.