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Today’s playwrights play safe; we have no one to raise hell on stage

Tuesday June 21 2022
Thespians act out a scene in a historic play "Ngaahika Ndeenda" ("I Will Marry When I Want").

Thespians act out a scene in a historic play "Ngaahika Ndeenda" ("I Will Marry When I Want") at the Kenya Cultural Centre, Nairobi on May 26, 2022. PHOTO | TONY KARUMBA | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Ngũgĩ wa Mirii’s controversial banned play I Will Marry When I Want, (Ngaahika Ndeenda in Gikuyu, in which it was originally written), recently came to the Kenyan stage after 32 years.

Soon after the popular play’s opening in 1977, it was banned by the government of president Jomo Kenyatta.

The two Ngũgĩs were detained for a year and only released in December 1978 by Daniel arap Moi, who succeeded Kenyatta after his death in August of that year.

After his release, Wa Thiong’o wasn’t allowed to get his teaching job back at the University of Nairobi and continued to be harassed. Both playwrights were eventually forced into exile.

It is most likely a coincidence, but with the return of Ngaahika Ndeenda to the Kenyan theatre, President Uhuru Kenyatta might well claim that he has paid for the sins of his father 45 years ago.

The play is a stinging critique of political corruption, greed, religious hypocrisy, and elite collaboration with imperialists. It is also a thinly veiled call for an uprising by the masses.

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It’s striking how little of the ills the Ngũgĩs wrote about in 1977 have changed. In fact, in almost all respects, especially if one looked at Africa as a whole, things have got worse.

And even striking is that both in Kenya and other parts of East Africa plays like I Will Marry When I Want are extremely rare these days.

In Uganda, in 1977, playwright Byron Kawadwa was murdered by the Idi Amin regime over the play Oluyimba lwa Wankoko (The Song of Mr Cock).

Far more subtle than Ngũgĩ’s, it tells of the attempt to oust the rightful heir to the throne by an ambitious politician.

True, there are hard-hitting books, and writers like Uganda’s Stella Nyanzi and Kakwenza Rukirabashaija have paid dearly with torture, detention and exile for their troubles, but classic theatre as political commentary has been elusive.

One obvious reason is that comedy has usurped the place of old theatre on stage; and then the internet and social media, with the proliferation of memes, and comic clips, took the rest. Theatre has become too much of a hit-and-miss affair, to be worth the trouble for many playwrights.

Ironically, serious theatre is in peril, precisely these days it has patronage. In recent decades, there has been a lot of “theatre for development”, and Western donors and NGOs have poured in money.

The result is that many plays these days are about the girl-child, domestic abuse, gender rights, human trafficking, HIV/Aids, environmental degradation, and only occasionally corruption.

You won’t have a play about a president who is murdered by his mistress; who is a cannibal and eats the flesh of the prisoners who are killed in the torture chambers; or who robbed his country’s Central Bank clean.

Theatre has become an aid project. Though these are the big issues of the times, their treatment is predictable, dull, entangled in a saviour complex; and largely plays safe, not wanting to upset the president and his government too much.

Maybe I Will Marry When I Want will inspire a new generation of playwrights to come out and raise hell.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

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