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Why the dissonance between theatre and reality?

By - | May 12th 2013

By Oby Obyerodhyambo

A few years ago, I wrote an article pointing out that there was a serious disconnect between what was touted as popular and successful Kenyan theatre and our socio-economic and political reality.

It seemed trite then, and could even have passed for a piece to belittle the efforts being made by the ‘struggling’ theatre artists who were doing rehash after rehash of West-end comedies or vulgar adaptations of classics in local languages. The fact that the venues were patronised and audiences seemed to enjoy themselves was used to justify this anomaly.

My argument then was that there was a need for vibrant local scripts on issues facing the Kenyan public; youth unemployment, rural destitution, violence, crime, gender-based violence, child rights abuses, high-and low-level corruption, political chicanery, ethnic chauvinism and polarisation, nepotism, road accidents, drug and alcohol abuse, emerging dictatorship by the legislature, media complicity in stifling democracy, inequity, extra-judicial killings... The list is endless.

Passionate discussions

These are things that the Letter to the Editor columns in Kenyan dailies or the discussions on FM stations would confirm are the real issues. These are issues discussed with passion in bars and even tea-drinking gatherings.

Kenyans are a very politically engaging nation, and you will find groups in urban street corners or rural markets talking about the issues of the day. Why, then, has the capital of theatre — Nairobi — failed to move in sync with the national pulse? Why are such escapist scripts being peddled and repeated ad nauseaum? This is the question posed by Maragaretta wa Gacheru after surviving a production of Home is Where Your Clothes Are.

One needs to interrogate whether the producers of these plays really understand that there is a social responsibility that art plays and that the choice of a play is not as neutral an act as it seems to be. A work of art is a public statement, a commentary on today’s issues.

National relevance

When the nation is fighting Al Shabaab in Somalia, retaliatory bombs are exploding regularly, policemen are being killed, lives are being lost in avoidable accidents, buildings are collapsing with alarming frequency, and citizens are being blackmailed by their elected representatives, what does it say about the relevance and consciousness of a producer who puts up Pull Up Your Pants? Maro Okwako Or (Mother-in-law hugs her son-in-law) or Mumaraya Nu? (Who is the prostitute?)? Is such an art piece contributing to the national discourse in any way?

The other side of the coin is why these productions are attracting huge numbers. Are the audiences deliberately seeking refuge in escapism from a reality that is too hard to bear?

If one assumes that the producers are too naive to understand that they have a role to play in driving the public agenda of conscientisation and seeking a better life, then we must look at the system that produces them — or better still the lack of a system that would have produced playwrights, directors, actors, producers and even critics.

Many years ago, before the proliferation of Theatre Arts departments in our local universities, it was argued that there were no places to train this cadre of artists. This is how Nairobi Theatre Academy came to be. However, several years down the line, we ought to be asking a hard question: What have these departments done to improve the quality and relevance of the local theatre?

The Phoenix Players under the direction of Millie Oguttu and George Mungai set out to fill this gap by inviting dramatists to write scripts and have them staged. JPR Ochieng’ Odero, John Sibi Okumu and Oby Obyerodhyambo have had scripts put up at that venue to critical acclaim.

Mungai had said his intention was to have several such plays annually, so that Phoenix serves as a place for nurturing play writing talent. This theatre incubator strategy needs better support, to fill the gap of local relevant scripts.

Short shelf life

The Schools and Colleges Drama Festival has proved that there are serious scripts with relevant themes being penned out there. The fact that the system tried to introduce censorship tells it all. However, these plays end up with a very short shelf life, sinking to oblivion as soon as the festival has done its cycle.

The popularity of the festivals demonstrates that the Kenyan public is partial to more serious drama — that which tackles the burning questions of the day in a bare-knuckled manner.

Recently, I attended the G-Pange Annual Talent Explosion (Gates Festival) held at the humongous Nakuru High School hall. During the performances of some of the award-winning productions, there was no standing space at the venue.

There was a memorable play on the drug menace at the Coast and another on sexual exploitation of the poor by the rich. These plays received standing ovations.

Reason to hope

The point is that one cannot use the demand/ supply rule of economics to justify the plays that we are served. Can there be government support in cash and kind to build the capacity of centres like Phoenix to incubate writers and scripts that will respond to the current realities? Audiences can be excused for seeking a few minutes reprieve from the stark realities of life but can the same leeway be extended to producers?

This is something that the nominated Cabinet Secretary Hassan Wario can take up.  What people might not know is that several years ago, Wario was part of the cast of Drumbeats on Kerenyaga, written by Oby Obyerodhyambo and produced by TWP, which was ‘banned’ by the Moi regime. Maybe that is reason enough to hope.

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