Theatre, film action on quick revival

Sammy Mwangi and some of his Heartstring Entertainment team members during the theatre awards last month.

If there is a creative discipline facing quick revival post the Covid-19 trying period in Kenya, it is the theatre and film industry.

Last week was exceptional, with Batman enjoying a successful opening weekend in Kenya with Anga Imax-Diamond Plaza and Anga Sky, Panari Centre recording full booking. The premier at both centres, which was powered by Spice FM and other Standard Group entertainment platforms, saw tickets sell out during the weekend screenings, marking a real return of cinema almost two years after such influx was witnessed.

It was not just the film theatres enjoying a revival, but also theatre halls with Alliance Française, Nairobi, hosting Heartstrings Entertainment’s Too Late play that also witnessed full-house attendance for three consecutive days.

The play, a rib-cracking romantic thriller is the second to be hosted by the leading theatre group this year, this coming after the late 2021 warm-up pieces entitled Monkey Business, Don’t Knock and Three is a Crowd.

“The return to face-to-face theatre has been really emotional. Fans had missed good theatre action and those of us who like staging real plays had missed the stage. They had waited in earnest. The actors are happy business is back and they can do what they like doing as they put money in their pockets. We are getting real wild reactions. The demand is crazy,” said Sammy Mwangi, the brains behind Heartstrings Entertainment.  

This comes only weeks after the theatre industry joined hands in support of the inaugural Kenya Theatre Awards saw newcomers such as KCA University emerge among the top, winning the Best Production thanks to their musical, Simba Bazenga.

The moving musical went ahead to bag three awards including Best Musical Theatre Production and Best Musical Score, with the latter award going to the show’s Rodgers Ng’ing’a.

Veteran theatre guru and author, David Mulwa was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Mulwa began his acting career in 1967. Legendary actor, John Sibi-Okumu was honoured with Global Impact Award. Sibi-Okumu made his Kenya National Theatre debut in 1973 at the age of 19 as Romeo.

“When you see veteran theatre acts joining newcomers in acts like this, then, that is a sign something new is taking place in this space. I believe theatre and the film industry are on the verge of blowing up. Creatives talking, I should believe this is where our best bet is right now,” said Alliwah David, who has been instrumental in translating set books into plays, the same his Theatrics Entertainment group has been staging in schools.

“We have seen how some of our theatre plays are attracting attention on pay-TV and how Africa is becoming receptive to our acts. Netflix and other international organisations that have an interest in film are now eying Kenya and with that, we are seeing more Kenyan films making it to such platforms. If Kenyans continue to support their own, there is no doubt soon we will be named among the film and theatre powerhouses in Africa. We have been fusing both the new and the experienced acts in all our plays simply because this is how you grow threatre. For example, just like Don’t Knock, Too Late featured some of Kenya’s film heavyweights who made it to the screen through theatre, some having featured in major projects such as Nairobi Half Life, Watu Wote, Crime and Justice. Some of the guys we have been working with include Paul Ogola, Adelyne Nimo, Bernice Nthenya, Timothy Ndisi and Machrine Andala,” he said.

According to Mwangi, it will take the collective effort of theatre enthusiasts, play writers and directors as well as actors to pump life back to the Kenyan theatre. He said this is the kind of enthusiasm witnessed during the 80s and 90s big theatre season in the country, a move that gave birth to most of the established players in the industry.

Those were days when Phoenix Players was leading the way with memorable plays such as Fire Razes by Max Frasche, Out of Order by Ray Cooney, William Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and Merchant of Venice; Lee Thompson’s Woman in a Dressing Gown and Graham Greene’s The Complaisant Lover.

Some of the big shots who supported the move include Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o, Patrick Lumumba and John Sibi-Okumu. The generation of Ian Mbugua, Victor Muniafu, Susan Kibukosya, Mumbi Kaigwa and Mwangi, among others took over the button, keeping theatre aflame till names like Daniel Ndambuki aka Churchill, Lupita Nyong’o, Ken Waudo, Alliwah David and Nini Wachera took the stage.

“The truth is that local plays and theatre, in general, have been taken as a pastime activity and like I have said before, that put the industry in a position where it could not attract credible attention. However, lately, things have been changing and we are witnessing a reshaping of the theatre where this is being treated as a serious profession, a career that is supporting hundreds of creatives,” said Mwangi.

“I strongly feel we are headed in the right direction. I feel we are moving back to the days when the theatre was a beehive of activity, sessions were full and plays would be staged for weeks due to public demand. This is the space we are fighting for. It’s about time.” 

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