Down Kenya’s theatre memory lane

Friday January 08 2016

Some of the photos on exhibition at Cheche Gallery at the Kenya Cultural Centre. PHOTO | MBUGUA NGUNJIRI

Theatre lovers in Kenya have an opportunity learn the history of theatre and performing arts in the country by visiting the Cheche Gallery at the Kenya Cultural Centre.

At the exhibition — “Recall and Reflect: The Kenya National Theatre Across Time” — which started on December 15 last year and ends at the end of January, you will get the earliest pictures of the Kenya National Theatre, including those taken in 1952, when the then colonial governor Sir Evelyn Barring officiated over the official opening of the establishment, then an exclusively whites-only affair.

It should also be recalled that the 1950s witnessed the Mau Mau peasant rebellion that gave the colonial masters quite a headache. One of exhibition items is an article published in the Sunday Post that reviewed a comedic performance by one Kipanga Athumani, “... Nairobi Africans have laughed outright at Mau Mau, laughed till they rocked, laughed in row upon row of flushing white teeth against ebony faces...,” said the piece.

Racial undertones aside, it does not take a genius to realise that during the Emergency period, let alone the colonial period, it was unimaginable for Africans to stage performances at the Kenya National Theatre on their own.

Clearly, this was a propaganda item bankrolled by the colonial authorities to try and “cure” Africans of the Mau Mau affliction.

This goes to show how the practice of using artistes — with a few pennies thrown their side — to further the selfish interests of those with power is not an entirely new phenomenon. Kipanga was one of the notable entertainers of the pre- and post-independence period.


It would appear that even 10 years after Kenya’s Independence, the Kenya Cultural Centre, which incorporates the Kenya National Theatre, was yet to shed its colonial outlook. A December 1975 article appearing in the Sunday Nation, decried the lack of productions and compositions geared towards an African audience.

Bar Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City, the rest of the plays staged at the KNT were foreign. “…perhaps to a lesser extent, the Conservatoire of Music, where, sad to say, no African music ever seems to be encouraged,” lamented the piece, whose headline was “Let us rid theatre of its colonial legacy.” It is no laughing matter that more than half a century after Kenya’s independence the country is nowhere close to having a Culture policy.

In 1976, the staging of Betrayal in the City and the Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi at the Kenya National Theatre was seen as a big achievement, but it was not without controversy and frustration for those involved.

In an article published in the Daily Nation, Ngugi complained of the tribulations suffered by the two African productions. Betrayal in the City was directed by Tirus Gathwe while The Trial of Dedan Kimathi was directed by Seth Adagala.

Ngugi said that the foreign-managed KNT only allocated them two plays four days each, while two European shows were allocated a total of 40 days! The explanation by the management was that “African plays never attracted true theatre lovers anyway… Couldn’t the reason be found in the fact that African plays were always crammed into two or three nights and therefore gaining very little from the crucial word of mouth publicity by the first three nights’ audiences?” asked Ngugi.

While it can be argued that to date the Kenyan cultural scene has never achieved its full potential, still some of the people who have graced the scene have truly left a mark, which sadly isn’t being fully acknowledged.

Individuals like Paul Onsongo, Oliver Litondo, and the late Sidede Onyulo were regulars of KNT. Onsongo acted in the much acclaimed Hollywood movie Kitchen Toto, Onyulo starred in the German film Nowhere in Africa, which won an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2003, while Litondo starred the late Kimani Maruge’s biopic The First Grader.

Not to be forgotten were Ann Wanjugu and Wahome Mutahi – both deceased — who lit many a theatre lover’s face with their performances.