Yet what these cultural critics hadn’t foreseen or even included in their hasty assessment of the Kenyan theatre scene was the role that women would play in not just reviving the local theatre world but uplifting it to a better life than it had seen in many years.
It was actually decades ago when women like Mumbi wa Maina and Janet Young created brilliant new shows through their Tamaduni Players. An original script like ‘Portraits of Survival’ was inspired by the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo whose ‘Trial of Dedan Kimathi’ (which represented Kenya at FESTAC in 1976) effectively kick-started a revolutionary phase in Kenyan theatre. That phase was tragically truncated not long thereafter when the Kenya Government bulldozed the Kamiirithu Theatre and shut down Ngugi and Ngugi wa Mirii’s powerful Kikuyu play, ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda’ (‘I’ll marry when I want to’).
Nonetheless, Micere’s role as a pioneer in contemporary Kenyan theatre was solidly established with the ‘Trial’. More often she’s lauded for being a brilliant poet, and as such, both roles were recently recognized and paid homage to in the introductory scene of ‘Brazen’, the Fourth Edition of the new and innovative theatre company, Too Early for Birds.
Professor Micere’s poem, ‘Daughter of my people, sing’ raises so many questions about why women seem to be absent in Kenyan history. It was those questions that the three script-writers of ‘Brazen’ sought to answer when they created one of the most inspiring and multi-layered productions seen at the Kenya National Theatre in recent times.
Aleya Kassam, Laura Ekumbo and Anne Moraa went ahead and did their homework, researching the whereabouts of the most heroic women freedom fighters in Kenya’s past. ‘Brazen’ highlights the tremendous contributions made by five outstanding women, namely Mekatilili wa Menze, the Giriama woman who led a resistance movement against the British colonizer in 1913-1914; Wangu wa Makeri, the first female Chief in Kikuyuland, Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, the top-ranking female freedom fighter in the ‘Mau Mau’ Land and Freedom Army; Chelagat Mutai who was one of the so-called ‘Seven Bearded sisters’ who led Kenya’s Second Liberation in the 1990s, the nameless woman who brought down the legendary Luanda Magere, and the great Kenyan-Asian writer and rebel, Zarina Patel.
‘Brazen’ amplified the lives of all five of these amazing women whose role in Kenyan history the play insists must never be forgotten. But neither is ‘Brazen’ to be forgotten since it is the first all-female show that exclusively featured women in both the cast and the crew. What’s more, the integration of music, dance and dramatic effects was impressive, especially as the lighting and sound were all handled impeccably by female technicians.
The actors in ‘Brazen’ were also outstanding. Some were in their early twenties, others were decades older than that. But what also made the script impressive was the way the writers researched their script, just as Janet Young and Mumbi wa Maina more than forty years before.
But if ‘Brazen’ confirms our assertion that women are taking the lead in reviving and renovating Kenyan theatre, the show does not begin to tell the full story of what women are doing in theatre today. The troika of Aleya, Laura and Anne are not the only women scriptwriters who are busy right now. For instance, Sitawa Namwalie who played the Cucu and Muthoni in ‘Brazen’ has been dramatizing her poetry ever since she staged ‘Cut off my tongue’ in 2008. But she is also scripting and staging her own plays, including ‘Room of Lost Name.’
Mumbi Kaigwa is also an award-winning playwright whose trilogy has been staged (often one play at a time) in Kenya and East Africa as well as in Europe, the US and Asia. Best known for her acting in films like The Constant Gardener and The First Grader, Mumbi at 57 has been on stage for nearly half a century. She’s also inspired a multitude of upcoming actresses by starting her own theatre troupe, The Theatre Company in 2000 and in being the first Kenyan woman to dare stage Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues.
Other women playwrights include Dr Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui who is best known as a painter, textile designer and poet but has also written scripts like ‘Nzinga, the Warrior Queen’ and ‘The Lion of Egerton Castle’. Others include Jean Akinyi who wrote ‘Contract Love’ which was staged earlier this year by Dr Zippy Okoth.
Dr Zippy has been a passionate playwright cum performer in the past year especially. Staging a series of one-woman shows out of her ‘Diary of a Divorced Woman’, she’s put on ‘Stranger in my Bed’ and ‘Strange Voices’ even as she’s taught Theatre Arts at Kenyatta University. Zippy can be credited for playing a decisive role in inspiring a number of young active thespians, including the founders of Too Early for Birds, Nyartia Bryan and Abu Sense.
There are also a wide range of women who have started up their own theatre companies. Besides Mumbi Kaigwa (who handed over The Theatre Company to her ex-spouse Keith Pearson in order to found The Arts Canvas), there’s Mbeki Mwalimu who founded Back to Basics early this year and has subsequently staged several original Kenyan scripts. Then there’s Mshai Mwangola who with Mueni Lundi and Aghan Odero, formed The Performance Collective which has a regular gig every month at the Point Zero Coffee House and Book Club.
Caroline Odongo was the force behind the Mujiza Theatre where she not only managed but often directed shows. She also acted but now she works with etcetera productions mainly as a producer-director.
Muthoni Garland is not only the author and founder of Storymoja Publications. She also founded the Nyef Nyef Storytellers which is one of a number of Kenyan storytelling troupes that perform not only at the annual Storymoja Festival but at festivals of their own.
One such festival is the Sigana International Storytelling Festival which features Hellen Alumbe, John Namai, Wangari Grace and a wide variety of performing artists from around the region and the world.
Mara Menzies is a Kenyan storyteller who is based in Scotland but comes occasionally to perform in Kenya en route to other parts of the world. Maimouna Jallow is an inspired Togo-born storyteller married to a Kenyan who has also played a pivotal role encouraging Kenyan writers and performing artists to ‘reimagine Kenyan folktales’ in light of present-day circumstances.
One cannot forget Millicent Ogutu who is both a lawyer and thespian who single-handedly saved the Phoenix Players in the 1990s after which she became Managing Director of Phoenix up until she went back into law. But Milo’s one-woman performances have been some of the most memorable in recent times. If she could make a living as an actress, there is little doubt she would return to live theatre full-time.
Finally, two of the most exciting actresses on the Kenyan stage currently are part of the live Improv-comedy troupe ‘Because You Said So.’ June Gachui, like Millicent, is a lawyer as well as a performing artist. Her female counterpart in BYSS is Patricia Kihoro, both of whom are accomplished singers as well as comedians who are part of this dynamic seven-person troupe which performs several times every year and most recently (12 August) starred at the Nairobi Arboretum, nonplussed by the fact that the Phoenix Theatre is no more. They feel free to perform wherever they can find space, which is the spirit that many Kenyan actors share.
Quite a few Kenyan male actors (and some women) have shifted over to film and television, in part because they find it more lucrative. But with their departure, we are witness to the unavoidable fact that Kenyan women are emerging as the most dynamic force in live theatre today.