This is a review of TEFB’s Tom Mboya Edition that went down Saturday 5th October 2019

A damaging political climate between the 1950s and 70s culminated in a number of infamous assassinations. So, when the Too Early for Birds team returned to the stage this past weekend, they brought with them one of these fascinating histories – the production of an assassination that is perhaps Kenya’s greatest mystery yet.

The team conceived of their setting in memoriam Tom Mboya at a time when Kenyans are living out a series of national dramas to the tune of The Drunkard, Grand Theft Ruto, Mega Scandal among others. Would Tom, one of Kenya’s most gifted sons, have changed our country and its systems? We will never know. Thomas Joseph Mboya died on 5th July 1969.

The Good

Having watched and loved one of their shows last year, I was keen to make their acquaintance again. They did not disappoint and I liked their latest edition for several reasons. Admirable and well researched, the anthology was directed by Mugambi Nthiga and produced by Gathoni Kimuyu. The show was delivered by a versatile ensemble of actors who helped us retain a sense of place and timing through TJ’s life’s moments.

The staging consisted of a screen on which a couple of videos played. In addition, was a lining of prop boards on which, plastered, were newspaper cuttings featuring the late Mboya. Each act had the same fundamental setting. This was only spruced up every once in a while and on a different scale. The narration was, overall, a strong one as was the interweaving music through which I sat with my eyes closed and taken out of myself.

There were a number of arresting moments especially struck by Mercy Mutisya, Elsaphan Njora and Pauline Kyalo all of whom had a great ability to leverage on stillness. In addition, Anubhav Garg may have taken some time to settle into his role but once he did, he proceeded to offer a performance of considerable admiration.

The Bad

Still, there were some weaknesses. In an attempt to drive my point home, it is that too many cooks spoil the broth. Firstly, there were simply too many narrators who in turn had a downturn in the show’s pacing. Clocking three hours, this was a long show and it certainly felt it.

Secondly, there was an overcharge of puns and an over reliance of internet jokes. It may be that this affected my experience owing to the fact that puns should really not be rehearsed.

Third, is that some sections dragged on for far too long and in other sections, the intrigue wasn’t sufficiently built. By the time the show ended, I had a heightened sense of impatience. Needless to say, the show started 45 minutes late and the check-in desk was a mess with few attendants.

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I have since turned Tom Mboya’s fate over and over in my in mind; he has stayed with us as a tragic symbol of a time when politics was a theatre of cruelty. Under the circumstances, I am grateful that we have had brave enough a people who have stood up for what was right. Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya was one such person.

Finally, I credit the TEFB team for making me realize that theatre in Kenya is coming of age.

From the moment I came across the poster, it was a certainty that I had to attend Breathe and so, on Sunday quarter to 3 thereabouts, I diligently walked to Alliance Française for the penult show. How do I tell you how much pleasure the cast gave me that afternoon? Or how much more interested I am now in the details concerning all that Biko has been through? It is my assumption that you all read, or have read, Jackson Biko’s blog, https://www.bikozulu.co.ke. The fact is that the written works of Jackson Biko entertain as much as they inspire.

A few minutes past 3 and we were asked to rise, as is customary in Kenyan theatre, to sing the national anthem at the start of the play which opened with a monologue from one of the shared voices – Gilbert Lukalia. Thereafter, the setting changed to a room with all shared voices present and it is here that the action really began.

The multi-talented cast of 9 all of whom impersonated Biko impressed me. Each of their individual performances added up to more than the sum of what I expected. I imagine that, like me, some of you are easily prompted by feelings and are thus eternally grateful for stage managers throwing the switch. My poor, by the time we were halfway through, I was a teary mess! The best ‘lol’ of the day came at the end of the performance when they goofed on the photo sessions in Kikuyu burials and the inflation of Luo burials; yes, sometimes death does give us a certain parodic dimension which advances to us our peculiar attitudes and habits towards it.

Rolling in one after another, the cast animated a number of selected stories: Mary Mwikali and Wakio Mzenge powerful relayed to us the sinister coldness of cancer in Pray for Jane and Mommy Will Be Just Fine. Wanjiku Mburu adapted Nobody Wins highlighting the incredible ‘complexity’ of a man and his drink and one of whose character, Mad Larry, forms the basis of Biko’s Drunk. Martin Githinji took us through A Long Post About Life with great hilarity while Nick Ndeda and Mwaura Bilal, in a highly engaging sense of melodrama, brought the intensely dramatic Just Friends to life.

Truly, Gilbert Lukalia was a revelation! This was my first time experiencing him on stage and while it is not necessary that I underline the intensity of what he did to me, his was a vivid portrait strongly projected particularly in his especial dramatization of Bradley. Here, I can add that what Gilbert did constituted the principle of a true thespian – confident, expressive, intelligent and, I believe, introspective.

Lastly, if it is your job, as I have made it mine, to have opinions about music and are worried about airs that cause you more distress than pleasure, say for instance your enthusiasm wears thin at the incoherent blabber of trap, then I have excellent news! The background music was on point with all pieces in the repertoire doing a mighty fine job of steering the act through. Three cheers for the staging’s music supervisor.

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In what esteem do I hold Back 2 Basics who did an excellent job of managing my expectations? Breathe felt as playful as it was melancholic and where this was a theme of loss and, perhaps reflecting on death, it was also about the importance of confrontation; a condition that has to be met by those who want to win in life.

*Disclaimer: Not everything lends itself to description; what I’ve written is but a superficial account of what transpired. Where I failed to make a great impression, I regret you’ll have to imagine it for yourselves. As for me, I came, I saw, I will come some more.

Saturday 28th July was a delicious treat! I attended the 7-9 pm #TEFBrazen show which was much more vivid and engaging than I expected. The production, directed by Wanjiku Mwawuganga, was arousing and brazenly unapologetic with a humor that served well too. Here is a brief recap of what I made of the performance:

Based on a script written by Anne Moraa, Aleya Kassam and Laura Ekumbo, the all-female cast shone, who not only delivered their individual roles beautifully but also greatly complemented each other as an entity. Settings of the past were meshed with great artistry to dramatise exceptional Kenyan women whose history has been solidly effaced – Mekatilili wa Menza, Field Marshall Muthoni, Wangu wa Makeri, Zarina Patel, Philomena Chelagat and the female legend from Nandi who saw to it the defeat of traditional warrior Luanda Magere.

The main cast whose anchor was Cucu played by Sitawa Namwalie, comprised of five other women: Beatrice (Suki Wanza Nyadawa), Ciru (Aleya Kassam), Nakagwa (Laura Ekumbo), Lilian (Elsie Akinyi Oluoch) and Bosi (Mercy Mbithe Mutisya). The setting was reminiscent of round-a-fire story-telling sessions as each of the women swapped to narrate. A most memorable component of the performance was that Cucu staged Muthoni wa Kirima, one of the four Mau Mau Field Marshals and the only woman to have achieved the rank.

Bosi, the crowd’s favourite as was mine, gave a wonderfully dramatic account of the Luanda Magere legend. Her style of delivery which was uniformly exciting and comic captured collective attention. Beatrice too was nothing less than revelatory as she went about – more a weapon than altruistically – quoting the bible, lol! Nakagwa made a viscerally moving performance. Was her being pregnant symbolic of something? Future generations to whom these stories we shall pass, perhaps? Come to think of it, I didn’t think anything of it until now.

I particularly liked Nyokabi Wainaina who I could easily say was the standout of the evening at-least to me. Playing Legends, she brilliantly morphed and adapted to the featured heroines, which couldn’t have been a mean feat! Her commitment was admirable and truly, I think she deserved a special praise for projecting well. Anne Moraa too.

Ciru was for me an underwhelming character. Although there were moments of triumph between her narration which told of Zarina Patel’s fight to have the Jeevanjee Gardens remain a public amenity, she did not do the narration much justice. It was just so different and I thought it a largely miscalculated move to have presented her as an intoxicated character in the first place.

I anticipated being immersed in a world of badass women for badass women (and men) by badass women. A remarkably badass show is what I got! I may never really know the turmoil these brazen women went through, but thanks to the #TEFBrazen cast, the physical, emotional and psychological sketches were strongly realized. I am, for instance also, yet to get reconciled to the fact that Mekatilili was 70 years old when she led the Giriama rebellion! SEVENTY…SEVEN ZERO….whew!

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To the credit of the director, the stage manager, the scriptwriters, dancers and everyone involved, this was a highly spirited show; there were a few unsteady moments but the overall outcome was a well-coordinated and laudable execution. The end, though I felt it a bit of an anticlimax, was deservedly met with an enthusiastic ovation.

I found this to be a bemusing yet fascinating performance with a strangely complementary use of movement and silence. Its mixed media was a good interplay of sounds by Ronnie Goodman and a video by Raymond Ndikwe both of which served as a backdrop for projecting what seemed to me a necessary sense of expectation. What was far more interesting though, and that was as much a matter of my own interpretation as it was the performer’s, is the way it resonated with time. Specific, was the symbolism of the bell when it comes to sound and its resonance with our immediate surrounding.

After a flourish that was preceded by a dance about colourism, the Unknown – “an investigative journey through the experiences and places unknown and therefore deemed unperceivable but felt, can be proved, imagined and accepted as fact” – was performed with undue fuss. One might observe that Adam Chienjo’s performance remains an oddity and while this is true, one also needs to understand that not only is theatre performance transitory, it exists in real time. But I digress.

By way of passing his message across, Adam made use of a mask that he said was a deliberate improvisation. Where it hid his expressions from the audience, the two key provocations then were that there was no need to connect with us and that the performer’s intention was not to make the unknown known as it was to interact with it. Was his choice of the mask’s colour deliberate too? Certainly; and Adam did enthuse that it was the colour purple – a colour that did his performance justice on account of channeling his message – that he associates the unknown.

Yet, it would be of interest to know how the performance would have fared if the mask was orange or yellow or blue. Or how the visual experience of the performance would have been if he had no mask on. Indeed, colour, as do expressions, does play a big role in helping us make associations of what we know and don’t know. For instance, we ‘know’ that purity is white and evil, black; that love is red and envy, green etc.

In our love-hate relationship with the unknown, there is a degree of quiet triggers that intrigue, frighten and even prompt us to question it. Perhaps it is the redundancy of it or the knowledge that we can never really plan ahead and/or be prepared for it. As the questions posed – Can we value what we do not know? Is it possible to experience that which we cannot perceive? Can we describe the unknown as still? Is the unknown within time or is time within the unknown? To what extent does what we know contribute to the experience of the unknown?

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The performance is still a work in progress, but there was, nevertheless, much to admire. Yes, the questions it posed did exactly what they were intended to do; provoke thought and introspection through valuation of the unknown. In any case, without even the possibility of knowledge, the unknown will often struggle to remain unknown.

In my campus days, I would go to see practically any play showing at the Kenya National and the Phoenix Theatres. Now, I seem to be getting more risk-averse as I grow older. The first musical I ever watched was way back in 2011 at the Phoenix Theatre; an adaptation of Arthur Sullivan’s opera, The Pirates of Penzance. The second was Jesus Christ Superstar at the Kenya National Theatre earlier in April this year and so, Grease will make for the coveted third. Both JCS and Grease have been directed by Stuart Nash who heads the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio.

As should surprise no one, I love my musicals whether stage or film. I hadn’t watched Grease before and while I deduced it as a vibrant, feel-good musical, it is very callous and ridden with lots of sexual innuendo largely driven by its underlying themes which revolve around peer pressure and a teen’s perspective of what it takes to be happy. In some instances though, the team did bring out some pantomime villains that managed to grab my attention.

Set in Rydell High School featuring a working-class youth known as the Greasers, the musical opened and ended with the whole cast, of maybe up to 30 members, singing and dancing to a rendition of Grease. Throughout the performance, there was much to enjoy as the cast had its energies high up in exhibits You Are The One That I WantBorn to Hand Jive and We Go Together; and too, Nice Githinji who played Rizzy and can’t-remember-her-name but who played Marty did a sterling job in their delivery.

I was, however, underwhelmed by the main cast which was led by Elsaphan Njora who played Danny and Kaz Lucas who played Sandy. Perhaps it was a matter of style and enactment or my own reception, but I did not feel that their roles came across strongly enough; not even when Sandy transformed from her usually prim miss-goody-goody self to the rebel. If anything, they did work their way out only the slightest bit satisfactorily.

I found Kenickie (Nick Ndeda) and Johnny (Rigga) to be pretty weak characters and all the while wondered exactly what Vince Fontaine’s (played by Ian Mbugua) role in the musical actually is i.e. besides the fact that he was an announcer who preyed on female students at the National dance off.

The sound system was rather poor too. Either the characters had to shout because they couldn’t be heard over the loud music or I need to get my ears checked. Finally, it will be fair to note that the audience, majority of whom sang and mimed along, was elated and ovated at the end of the show. Grease’s run ended on Sunday 10th December.

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A post-show announcement by the director informed us that there are more musicals lined up for 2018 and if I should remember correctly, Sarafina is one of them. I wait upon it with the hope that this will be a better and much stronger cast.