It will take the love of the entire world to heal my homeland,” says Immaculée Ilibagiza, survivor of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and author of Left To Tell, “And that’s as it should be, for what happened in Rwanda happened to us all, humanity was wounded by the genocide.”
And so the musical Kesho Amahoro (“Tomorrow There’ll Be Peace”), which premiered in Nairobi at the Braeburn Theatre on July 10 endeavours to show us the extent of our wounds.
With the book written by Lizzi Jago, the music and lyrics by Anna Rusbatch and orchestrated by Jim Pywel, the Nairobi show is the inaugural performance of the National Youth Theatre.
When the curtains rise, the song Registration is performed by a chorus line of bright-faced children and there is the instant magic of musical theatre.
The multiracial cast — which is at first a surprise, given that the musical is based on the Rwanda genocide — renders the universality of the plight of orphans and displaced children.
Directed by Jazz Moll, Mimi Mutahi and Rohan Sakhyani under the guidance of Lizzie Jago, the action is centred around four siblings, Esperance (Jessica Obimbi), Alphonsine (Nanouri Winchester), Haki (Damon Hotz) and Ishi (Sean McSorley), who face the prospect of being put in different foster homes.
The music, which is accompanied by the Nairobi Youth Orchestra conducted by Levy Wataka, starts off with cheerful numbers, followed by a number of mellow numbers mainly duets, then picks up again after the interval up to the last number, Kesho Amahoro.
The duet by Esperance and JP (Ian Munene) What’s Going On Inside His/Her Mind accompanied only by the violins and the piano played by music director Andrew Ngatia, conveys the tenderness of budding love in the midst of grief and dispossession. This antithesis is a recurrent theme throughout the musical.
In the scene leading up to the song Knit Knit Knit Sit Sit Sit, where the chorus line dance like puppets, there is an alternation of the conversations between the knitting women and the non-governmental organisations discussing the Chicken Rotation Programme. This witty sequence contrasts the bureaucracy of the NGO systems and the absurdity of some of the programmes against the quotidian reality.
The choreography by Mimi Mutahi, is varied, ranging from frenzied dancing to the beat of drums, to a tap dancing routine that seems to blend the South African gumboot dance with the formations of the Irish River Dance in a rhythm akin to We Will Rock You by Queen.
This tap dance, which comes after the song My Childhood Died in Rwanda, a duet by Haki and Alphonsine, marks the point where the musical begins to hit a sombre note. It is performed by ghost like figures wearing white masks, which highlights the anonymity of those who died in the genocide.
After this, I Am Hoping, sung by all the children, wrapped in blankets, by the light of lanterns sets the stage for an ironic twist as the unexpected happens — the most dreadful scene I have ever seen on a Kenyan stage.
The use of light is almost at par with the music in creating the mood and the ambience. From the real lanterns on the stage that create the night scene to the silhouettes projected against a white fabric.
In the song I Miss You, the silhouettes of lost parents set the background for a waltz danced by Esperance and JP who are then joined by the ghost-like characters, invoking an image of those lost to the genocide. The scene will bring a tear even to the most hardened heart.
It is all in all a well-delivered show, if one chooses to overlook the fact that JP wears trousers with the print of the Kenyan flag — which has the unfortunate consequence of constantly reminding us that we’re at the Braeburn Theatre when we are trying to transport ourselves to a Rwandan refugee camp in Tanzania.
The Scottish critic Mark Brown says, “The critic is not a clapping machine” and by and large, I do agree with his adage. But when the show ended, I felt that the sincere thing to do was give them a standing ovation, seeing that as at some point in the show, I stopped being a critic and was drawn into the action and like any warm-blooded person, I was moved by it.
Anne Manyara is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics