Saturday, April 19, 2014

KENYAN THEATRE: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

First and foremost, let me clarify that by ‘theatre’ I am referring to professional stage productions (whereby the players expect to make money) and that are open to the general public. Excluded from my sphere of research are school dramas, talent shows and any theatrical production that is sponsored by a religious organization or NGO.

Contrary to popular belief, Kenya National Theatre (affectionately known to artists as ‘KNT’) is neither the oldest nor the largest theatre in the country. However, it is the most culturally relevant and the only one seen to have a national outlook. Reportedly, the Kenya National Theatre was initially built as a place for soldiers, brought in by the British Empire to quell the Mau Mau rebellion, to be entertained. However, given its size and location, it probably had a larger billing than that ie. was meant as an entertainment centre for the growing White community. It is a stone’s throw away from the Norfolk Hotel (a mecca for the who’s who of colonial times) and Central Police Station (of course then controlled by the colonial gov’t). KNT is now part of the Kenya Cultural Centre which also includes The Kenya Conservatoire of Music. Literary titans Wahome Mutahi, Francis Imbuga and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have all staged plays there.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s KNT plays included The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (co-written with Micere Mugo) and Ngahiika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Choose).  Maitu Njugira (Mother Sing for Me) was supposed to be stage there but was denied permission and banned altogether.

Francis Imbuga (recently deceased) is probably the best-known Kenyan playwright (as opposed to other types of writers) and his most notable work is Betrayal in the City which was made a KCSE set-book. His other titles include Aminata (a KCSE set-book), Shrine of Tears, Man of Kafira and the Burning of Rags[1]. Imbuga was a Professor and lectured at Kenyatta University. In his younger days, he was an ardent actor for both stage and TV.

Uganda’s John Ruganda must have been a very huge fan of Prof. Imbuga. Ruganda authored a book entitled Telling the Truth Laughingly: The Politics of Francis Imbuga’s Drama. Ruganda is himself a noted playwright, director and actor. He worked with the Makerere Travelling Theatre, Nairobi University Players and co-founded the Makonde Group. Ruganda’s own plays The Burdens, The Flood, Music Without Tears and Game of Silence have all been performed at KNT.

Mombasa's Little Theatre Club recently clocked 60 years of existence, although, according to a KTN TV report by Ferdinand Omondi, there isn’t much to show for all those years of being. It was initially a club for Royal navy sailors after World War II but was later leased out for various functions, including serving as a hospital. In 1952, White settlers leased the space and established ‘The Little Theatre Club’ for their own entertainment. Performances ranged from stage plays to choreographed dances. Jazz legend Louis Armstrong (Coal Cart Blues) performed there in 1960! The Little Theatre is still considered the home of culture and art in Mombasa (it’s the best-known spot for Coast-based thespians), but has a chequered history. It nearly faded into insignificance in the last decade although there now appears to be a spirited effort by stakeholders to restore its lost glory. The government has gazetted it as a National Monument.

Phoenix Theatre was established in 1983 by the fabled James Falkland and is the largest and oldest repertory theatre company in East and Central Africa. Their 120-pax auditorium is located in the Professional Centre on Parliament Road, Nairobi. Phoenix ‘alumni’ include Ian Mbugua (TV’s ‘Judge Ian’), TV presenter Jimmi Gathu, radio presenter Edward Kwach, Charles Bukeko (TV’s ‘Papa Shirandula’), poet Caroline Nderitu, thespian/writer John Sibi-Okumu[2], TV host Sheila Mwanyiga, thespian Millicent Ogutu, TV presenter Julie Gichuru, former TV presenter Lorna Irungu, actress Lupita Nyong’o (the first indigenous Kenyan to win an Oscar award[3]) and the current Phoenix Theatre MD David Opondoe, among many, many other well-known personalities. Its name symbolised the return of theatrical performances – a rising from the ashes – after the nearby Donovan Maule Theatre (est. 1947) was burnt to the ground.

Other popular venues for stage plays include Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institut, Braeburn School and the Courtyard Theatre, all in Nairobi.

And as we discuss theatre, let us not forget the sizeable Asian community in Kenya. ‘Kenindians’, as they are sometimes called, hold many staged events, including Hindi/Gujerati performances but unfortunately (and it is unfortunate), they are still perceived by Black Kenyans to be isolationist and therefore rarely do the majority of other Kenyans bother with them. Often, you will only see reviews of these performances (some of which include artists from mother India) in the ‘Asian scene’ section of the papers. The bi-annual Asian Mosaic of Society and the Arts (SAMOSA) Festival is one of the few platforms that bring together artistic performances from the Asian community and the original Kenyans. SAMOSA Fest was founded in 2004 in an effort to bring better understanding between the Asians and Kenyan tribes. The last SAMOSA festival highlighted the Sidis (African-Asians who live in India). The Sidis are descended from a group of Africans who were transported to India in historical times. They were initially known as the ‘Bombay Africans’ and chief among them was a man called Sidi, after whom the entire clan is now named[4]. Performances included a play called Tides, by Kouldip Sondhi. Kenindian plays include Pehli Preet (First Love) and Dhabakta Haiya (Throbbing Heart).

‘Africa has wrote no discernible changes in them. So it is with most East African Asians. They have remained spiritually intact: That has been their greatest strength; and their fatal weakness.’ – V. S. Naipul, North of South


‘I want theatre in Kenya to be truly professional. You, as an actor, can be a brand. And make money…The quality of the shows has really gone high because the professionalism of the performers.’ – David Opondoe, Managing Director of Phoenix Theatre,
speaking at an Arterial Network event in August, 2013

‘You have devoted your life to bringing laughter to the masses, including me. Yet, to the educated, you are the pre-eminent post-modern humourist. Your act has hints of Harold Pinter[5] and Samuel Beckett – ‘‘Theatre of the Absurd’’; shifting between the surreal and the slapstick. -  Actor Gary Busey in The Comedy Central Roast of Larry the Cable Guy

Some theatre groups, like Heartstrings Kenya and Festival of Creative Arts, have found formulas for staging successful plays. Their productions are usually critically and commercially successful. Heartstrings Kenya is uncanny in its ability to attract hordes of play-goers to the Alliance Francaise where they usually perform. Heartstrings plays are usually comedies with very localized themes and colloquial language. Some of their many hits include Dare Kenyans To Love, News Made in Kenya, Divorce Made in Kenya, Kenyan Playboy and 50% Kenyan. One of the key people behind the group is radio/TV star Daniel Ndambuki aka ‘Churchill’ (TV’s Churchill Live). The ticket price is usually about Kshs 500 (USD$ 5.8) which is fair for a Nairobi city audience. When I was a magazine writer/editor, our office was situated near Alliance Francaise and I would often go down on Fridays to buy a ticket for various plays. What impressed me about Heartstrings shows was how often the first shows would be entirely sold out and I would have to book for later dates.

In December 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned the rehabilitation of the Kenya Cultural Centre incorporating the Kenya National Theatre. KNT was one of the landmark facilities earmarked for renovation as a way of commemorating 50 years of Kenya’s independence. It is due for a major facelift after the Kenya Breweries Limited allocated an estimated Kshs 500 million (US$ 1,1 million) for its refurbishment. During the launch of the project, President Uhuru Kenyatta said:

‘The first ever refurbishment of this building that would turn it hopefully into a modern building worthy of its name and the history that it carries with it.’

On his part, Nairobi governor, Evans Kidero, revealed that the Nairobi County government would relieve the KNT of most of the monetary dues it owed the county government:

‘We did agree and I accepted to write off the 96 percent of the amount owed to the county government.’

Details of the intended refurbishment were also posted on the president’s official website.

On January 16th 2014, an article entitled ‘Youth Fund Boosts Theatre with Kshs 100m’ appeared in the East African Standard, story by George Orido.  According to it, the chairman of the Youth Enterprise and Development Fund, Gor Semelang’o has announced a Kshs 100 million stimulus package for theatrical arts, to boost live theatre, in tandem with film and music which are due to receive Kshs 600 and Ksh 300 million respectively. Mr. Semelang’o: ‘It will also excite quality performances on stage and as a result bring a huge paying audience back to our theatres.’

Phoenix MD proudly says that the First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, attended the show For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf which was staged at Phoenix Theatre in 2013. The play – which contains deeply personal poetic narratives by several African-American women characters – was written by America’s Ntozake Shange and was only the second play by a Black woman to reach Broadway. Ntozake Shange also wrote other successful plays, including an adaptation of Bertlot Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1980) which won an Obie award.

The 2013 For Coloured Girls... show was directed (and starred) stage veteran Mŭmbi Kaigwa. Interestingly, Mŭmbi had acted in this very play, at Phoenix, back in 1987. In the 2013 revival, she starred alongside her daughter, Mo Pearson. 

‘One thing I don’t need is any more apologies. I got sorry greeting me at my front door, you can keep yours. I don’t know what to do with them. They don’t open doors or bring the sun back, they don’t make me happy or get a morning paper.’ ― From Ntozake Shange’s, For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf[6] (a ‘choreopoem’)

In 2010, the Oyier Brothers – Peter and Paul Oyier of Sterling Entertainment Productions - staged the famous South African musical Sarafina! in Kenya (with a local cast) and even brought ‘Sarafina’ herself – SA actress Leleti Khumalo - to the premiere. Sterling Entertainment has also staged various other high-quality productions such as Gentlemen in Concert and Ladies in Concert, which involved media personalities and other familiar faces. This yearning for international standards might just be the catalyst we need to propel live theatre into the league of mainstream entertainment. Many thespians, especially in Nairobi, are not satisfied with high-school-type acting-for-fun arrangements. They want to be taken seriously and they won’t to be involved in serious productions ie. they want theatre to put food on the table, place a roof over their heads and (hopefully) open doors to other acting opportunities such as TV and films. In short, they want it to be like Broadway whereby top actors became famous (in the theatre community), earn good money, receive recognition (awards etc) and often cross over to other entertainment fields. Broadway is so mainstream that numerous movie and film stars participate in it or revere it. Screen actors who are deeply involved with Broadway include Neil Patrick Harris (TV’s How I Met Your Mother), Hugh Jackman (X-Men), Oprah Winfrey (The Colour Purple), James Earl Jones (The Lion King) and the late tap-dancing Gregory Hines[7] (TV’s The Gregory Hines Show). Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman have both hosted the Tony Award ceremony. Increasingly, Kenyan troupes are putting out quality performances: from the acting to the productions values.

‘Radio theatre’ used to be popular on KBC radio but appears less so in these days of FM radio warfare. However, the BBC World Service has regular, and very high quality, radio plays contributed by listeners from all over the globe. They run an International Radio Playwriting Competition (with plenty of tips on their website on how to write for radio) in which local scribes are ardent participants. Kenyans who have won the BBC’s Radio Play competition include Crystal Ading’, whose winning script, The Game Plan, was brought to life by players from Kenya’s The Theatre Company.

 Theatre Awards – Theatre awards are back! The Sanaa Theatre Awards were launched in 2013, as Kenya celebrated 50 years of being a republic. Kenya hasn’t had any major awards for professional theatre since 2004, when the Mbalamwezi Awards went under. Apart from Sanaa Theatre Awards, I have it on good authority that there is at least one more theatre award franchise that will come on stream in the near future. This is great. Theatre awards will not only bring excitement to the scene and motivate performers but will also help in the financial department eg. If a certain producer has a string of award-winning shows, it will be easier to seek future funding for his/her projects. Similarly, if a certain actor is winning accolades across the award ceremonies, then critics and fans have no choice but view him/her as something special (since the award committees are independent and often rivals). The actor will then be in a better position to negotiate preferential acting fees or leverage the acclaim to seek roles in TV, film and advertisements.

Below is a partial list of the 2013 Sanaa Award Winners. The full list can be found on online at

Best Actor
Simon Oyatsi - The Theatre Company/Uzinduzi
Best Actress
Nice Githinji - Festival of Creative Arts

Best Director
Sammy Mwangi, Victor Ber - Heartstrings

Best Set Light And Sound Design
Elements by John Sibi-Okumu

Best Costumes
Shackles of Doom - Butere Girls

Best Production
Wanjikus Dilemma by Oby Obyeodhyambo

Best Comedy
Kenyan Pig Cat and Dogs - Heartstrings Kenya

Best Tragedy
Eulogy of A Rich Man - Uzinduzi Productions

Best Musical Theatre
Mo Faya by Eric Wainaina - Godown Arts Centre

Best Dance Theatre
Flamingo Flamenco by Kenya Performing Arts Group
Best Play In English
Wanjikus Dilemma by Oby Obyerodhyambo

Best Play In Kiswahili
Operesheni Linda Utu - Malindi High School

Best Play In Local Language
Ruhi Ruhiu - Johari Productions


‘Dear Kenyan theatre companies...please stop sending me invitations to watch your "latest hilarious rib-tickling blockbuster comedy" - "Run For Your Wife" or "Birthday Suite" or "Bedside Manners". Those are farces written in the 50s and 60s for British audiences, which you bastardise by changing character and place names - "Kenyanising", you call it. It doesn't work, and it's actually illegal! We're tired of repeats of old British plays! I don't want to see "Boeing Boeing" again - it's outdated! We're in the age of mobile phones and the internet, two things which would make those plays very unfunny in a second! Stop being lazy and create something original!' – A scriptwriter and former thespian (name withheld), ranting on Facebook

White Man’s Country? - Phoenix Theatre has in the past being accused of being ‘elitist’ and catering to mzungu (White) audiences. In recent years, the repertory theatre company has done a lot to counteract this impression. They have also been accused of having above-average ticket costs[8]. The players attribute this to the relative small size of the auditorium although the average punter doesn’t see why they can’t seek another venue (there has even been rumour that there are plans to demolish the entire Professional Centre that houses Phoenix and build a skyscraper in its place, so they might be on borrowed time anyway). But more pragmatically, if, say, a lawyer with an office in Victoria Park Towers, overlooking Nairobi’s Central Park, were to keep complaining to you about how expensive it is and how he is being threatened with eviction, wouldn’t you advice him to put his ego aside and move to a more practical office? For how long will Phoenix continue ‘struggling’?

Obsession with British farces/foreign material - If there’s an aspect of Kenyan theatre that drives audiences to distraction, it is the industry’s obsession with foreign plays. Critics have complained about this countless times but most of most players seem to turn a deaf ear to the criticism. The constant re-hashing of European bedroom farces (with a few minor changes to the names, places and locations in order to ‘localize’ the content) betrays a lack of originality. Some of the most popular playwrights in Nairobi theatre are Ray Cooney (Not Now Darling, Run for Your Wife, Husband for Breakfast, Wife Begins at Forty), Marc Carmoletti (Boeing Boeing) and Derek Benfield (Bedside Manners). Never mind that Kenyans don’t know these foreign writers from the man on the moon.

The stock answer given to critics when they ask why foreign plays keep being regurgitated is that Kenyan scripts/playwrights can’t match the ‘quality’ of their foreign counterparts. It’s a lazy answer and it can’t withstand cross-examination. How do you explain the runaway success of Heartstrings Kenya which specializes in local content? How do explain the rise of vernacular (especially Kikuyu) plays in recent times? How have scriptwriters like John Sibi-Okumu (Minister Karibu, Role Play, Meetings) and Cajetan Boy (All Girls Together, Backlash, Benta) managed to earn positive reviews from critics if their writings are not up to par?

Plays like She Ate the Female Cassava by Jimmi Makotsi[9] and Betrayal in the City by Francis Imbuga have become Kenyan classics and received wide critical acclaim. (She Ate the Female Cassava won a National Playwrights Award in 1980). Don’t you honestly think that Kenyans would be more interested in stories/characters they can closely identify with? The problem is that they rarely get that opportunity.

Short runs - A Broadway show typically costs millions of dollars to bring to reality and can take months or years to actually get on the Broadway circuit. For example, US TV personality Roseanne is said to have sunk $10 million into the production of gay singer Boy George’s musical, Taboo[10]. So how does one recover so much money from a stage play – and make a profit? For starters, Broadway tickets are usually very pricey: a single ticket for a popular show like Wicked or Les Miserablés can cost $100 or more. But the larger strategy is to have the show running for years – either all on Broadway or on tour. A typical show has hundreds of performances (hence the importance of understudies, in case a major character is missing or on a break). Many shows (especially musicals) have had thousands of performances (If it’s a good show then the reviews, hype, word-of-mouth etc will always make new people want to see it). Some shows like Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ Cats ran for years without a break. Another good example is the classic British musical Me and My Girl (a coming-of-age story about a poor Londoner who inherits a fortune and has to learn how to be a ‘gentleman’) which ran for 3 years on Broadway[11], covering 1,400 performances. What a challenge to Kenyan theatre troupes!

Most Kenyan productions last only one weekend and then they are buried for good (On Broadway, revivals are common, there’s even a category for them in the Tony Awards). Even if you make a profit during a weekend run (of 6 – 8 performances), imagine how much money you would have made over 100 performances (different venues, if necessary). Remember that the cast has already memorized, rehearsed and performed the play. Why waste it? Let them do more shows! Get event organizers, marketers, booking agents etc. But don’t waste a good production on a few shows. Some companies like Heartstrings Kenya will occasionally revive a show ‘due to public demand’ and this is an indication of the business sense that makes them succeed where so many others have failed. Think about it: a musician can record a song once and rest assured that thousands will hear it by buying the CD, downloading it from the Internet or hearing it on radio. Similarly, a stand-up comedian like Kenya’s Eric Omondi, Nigeria’s Basket Mouth or South Africa’s Trevor Noah can give a single live performance for a DVD recording and never repeat the act because any number of people can buy the DVD, watch it on YouTube or catch it on TV. But live actors have no such luck. They can only perform effectively to relatively small crowds (usually below 500), so to make any serious bucks (via ticket sales), they have no choice but to have a show that is so great, so evergreen, that it bears repeating dozens, hundreds or even thousands of times. The up side to this is that it creates truly professional actors – people who earn a living on stage (because they’re always working).

Some local productions culminate in a single performance.  All that time and effort spent on an original script, memorizing (ie. ‘cramming’), rehearsing, travelling, venue, decoration and so on is wasted on a single production. There’s no way it can possibly pay enough to inspire multiple future productions. The cast and crew can only do this for the love of theatre – the camaraderie, the thrill of being on stage, the living out of a childhood dream/fantasy etc. But otherwise, everyone involved had better hang on to their day jobs.

Poor marketing/promotion - Playwright and Kenyatta University theatre arts lecturer, David Mulwa, has pointed out that one of the factors hampering the success of theatre is lack of proper marketing. He avers that (book) publishers should call for stage scripts and hold workshops with writers on how to market them.

Zimbabwe has a vibrant six-day performing arts extravaganza dubbed ‘Harare International Festival of Arts’ that takes place annually. Why don’t Kenyan thespians have a similar festival in order to uplift their art? (Zimbabwe also has a famous annual Book Fair that leaves Kenya’s Nairobi International Book Fair standing.)

Lack of professionalism                                                 
Shortly after the movie Benta, based on Cajetan Boy’s play of the same title, premiered in Nairobi, the actress who starred in it gave an interview to the Buzz pullout of the Sunday Nation. In it, she revealed that when production began she didn’t know she was the designated star and was late to arrive on set. She said Cajetan called her on cellphone and told her that if she wasn’t there in the next few minutes, her role would be re-cast. This kind of thing happens all the time – actors either missing rehearsals or turning up late or taking the production as a hobby rather than a job.


‘Grandma said it was an outrage. ‘‘One of two terrible things will happen,’’ she predicted. ‘‘She’ll either kill herself, or worse yet, she’ll get along fine and end up in vaudeville’’.’
– Louise Baker, Out on a Limb (A Biography)

‘And finally, don’t thank your parents (after receiving your award). If you were raised in a nurturing environment, you wouldn’t be in show business!’ 
- Comedian Conan O’Brien hosting TV’s Emmy Awards

Veteran thespian/filmmaker Lee Kanyare of the Nyeri-based A.C.T Theatre Group has many tales about the theatre. He has been involved in theatre since the 1960’s and personally knew most of Kenya’s pioneering thespians. A sad story that Kanyare tells revolves around a young male actor who used to be part of their troupe when they used to perform at KNT with the likes of Wahome Mutahi. This particular aspiring actor came from a rich Nairobi family but his sole ambition was to become an actor. His bourgeois family wanted nothing to do with his foray into theatre and refused to support him in any way. Struggling financially and otherwise, he would make regular appearances at KNT but when it was time for lunch, he would go to a nearby bush and take a nap. He didn’t have money for lunch and, coming from the suburbs, he was too proud to beg from his lower-class artist friends.  Eventually, he got sick and died from a treatable illness – all because he didn’t want to prove his parents right and he was too proud to seek assistance from his peers. Following that incident, the ageing Lee Kanyare now likes to make sure that all performers in his productions are OK (they have food, bus fare etc). He has often dropped actors off in his own car.

Theatre in Kenya has long been considered a ‘hunger art’. Actors’ remunerations are often pitiable and most thespians do it for the love of acting (in other words, out of passion) or as a springboard to other ‘real’ acting opportunities in TV, film or commercials. Quite a number of top TV and celluloid stars cut their teeth in the poverty-stricken theatres. These stars (some of whom went on to generate millions of shillings) include Charles Bukeko (star of TV’s Papa Shirandula), Daniel Ndambuki (mega star of TV’s Churchill Live),  Joni ‘Ras’ Gathui who appears on Citizen TV’s Mother–In-Law, ‘Peter Marangi’ (seen on Dura Coat paint ads), singer/actor Size 8 (who has acted in various KBC TV shows in addition to making it big in the music industry) and TerryAnne Chebet who was an actor with Caroline Nderitu’s Poetry Lab stage group  before acting in the KBC TV show Reflections and then moving on to be a TV business anchor and national celebrity. The hit movie Nairobi Half Life, directed by Tosh Gitonga, drew almost all its actors from the world of theatre (the company of Heartstrings in particular).

But for the most part, theatre in Kenya remains a ‘hunger art’ and many thespians are struggling to make ends meet, especially if they have no other means of generating an income. Due to lack of funds to produce shows, many theatre groups rehearse in public areas such as Uhuru Park and the Nairobi Arboretum. And as you might expect in a city with one of the world’s most alarming crime rates, when the stakes are there, the producer or somebody else often grabs them and runs. An example is a young man who wrote in to the papers to complain about a particular producer who is notorious for denying actors their dues after the fact. In one anecdote, the angry young man told of how the producer transported his entire cast to a series of shows in Western Kenya. After the run - which grossed slightly over Kshs 200,000 - ‘the guy picked up his girlfriend and went MIA for several days. He wouldn’t even answer his phone.’ This is not an isolated incident. Quarrels over gate receipts by disgruntled actors are par for the course in Kenyan theatre. An even worse scenario is when the turn-up for a play is poorer than expected (for whatever reason), resulting in a financial loss for a theatre group that had put in so much for marketing, not to mention the time and energy they used up in rehearsals and performances.

Apart from individual actors and companies, even the playhouses have been through rough financial times. According to an article in The Standard, the Nairobi county government once demanded rate arrears from The Kenya Cultural Centre (incorporating KNT) amounting to over Ksh 400 million and threatened to auction away property to recover the monies. Phoenix Theatre, on the other hand, is often described as living up to its name by nearly going into extinction severally but magically rising again. During Ian Mbugua’s tenure as MD, it briefly closed its doors (in 2009 – 2010).

[1] Filmed as The Married Bachelor – it’s original title
[2] Has acted in about 40 stage plays since the 1970’s
[3] For the Steve McQueen-directed Hollywood movie, 12 Years a Slave, based on a non-fiction book of the same title
[4] Full details and photos available at the Rabai Museum in Mombasa. E-mail:
[5] Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature
[6] ‘Ntozake Shange’s poetry approaches the force of a whirlwind’ – Encore American & Worldwide News
[7] Tony Award Winner for Jelly’s Last Jam
[8] Phoenix Theatre tickets are now pretty much the same as other major venues in Nairobi ie. around Ksh 500
[9] Published by Heinemann, London, England, 1988
[10] A show whose preparation was marred by conflicts between her and Boy George
[11] Incidentally, it was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning 3 (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Choreography)