Kenyatta University’s haul of trophies at the 2017 National Drama Festivals has merely sated, not whetted the institution’s quest to be a powerhouse in the performing arts in the country, says Dean of Creative Arts, Film and Media Studies Dr John Mugubi.
The university scooped more than 30 trophies in different categories at the annual national showcase, including Best Item on Disability for the play The Mirage, Best Item on Early Childhood Development for the play Ricochet and winning choral verse for Rakatata. Cynthia Rao scooped Best actress award for Mirage while Joel Lukamasia snatched best choreographer prize for Musa.
Dr Mugubi says the exploits signify a growing acceptance of the arts as an important component of life, and also a vindication of the institution’s long-running association with performing arts and a spawning ground for thespians, one that dates back to 1992 when the university launched Culture Week, a week-long festival celebrating arts, culture and food for cohesion among the college’s fraternity.
“It is part of Kenyatta University culture of developing and graduating empowered individuals,” says Dr Mugubi.
We are sitting on the fifth floor of the Kenyatta University Admissions Complex with the Dean, Dr Emmanuel Shikuku, chairman of the Department of Film and Theatre Arts, School of Creative Arts, Film and Media Studies together with several of the winning KU team, fresh in the afterglow of their unprecedented wins.
The institution first forayed into the national festival in 2012. “The structure was geared mostly towards high schools as opposed to universities. The structure is under basic education, so were really gate-crashing,” Dr Mugubi says.
One of the major approaches while developing the department was to build on the once-vibrant culture by selling it to the students.
'DON'T HAVE TO CALL ALUMNI'
“It (the artistry) is student-driven, we just come in to facilitate,” says Dr Shikuku. “We don’t have to call alumni to train.”
He adds that working around the school year to fit into the festival’s calendar takes commitment. “We found it a very delicate ground. We have to organise this in advance, to sit around the school year and exam schedules.”
When Cynthia Rao was announced best actor for Mirage, it didn’t exactly come as a shock. Being one with the character had become an obsession when recording began. The theme of the film was the discrimination and abuse subjected to the differently-abled in the society. Rao plays a blind girl caught up in a drugs web.
“I stayed in character for days. On set, people would ask what was going on, why I was still ‘blind’. But I wanted to inhabit the character in a way I could tell the story.” There were few dry eyes in the hall following her performance.
Rao has seen her talent reach heights at Kenyatta University. The recognition at the festivals now casts distant the early days when she would be kicked out of sets because she was too small. Had it not been for an observant teacher who called her out from the hockey team, she might as well have abandoned her dream altogether.
“The teacher called me from the field and told me I can be an actor,” says Rao, sporting defiant locks that rise from a shaved lower head.
“It is a passion. It’s my life. I want to do it professionally.”
For her winning solo verse, director Fridah Karuri picked on a controversial subject — Josephine Kabura, the woman implicated in the still-simmering National Youth Service money imbroglio with former powerful Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru.
“I wanted to play the devil’s advocate,” says Karuri laughing. “I knew it would be viewed as a controversial subject, but her story had been lost in the conversation.”
The first-time director sees her win as a spring board that will bring along more success. “I was surprised to be called upon (to direct). Dr Shikuku told me I can do it. I hope to step up. I am an actress by background, but I aspire to be an all-round artiste.”
In 2016, Joel Lukamasia saw his dance lose the top prize at the national festivals. Later, he sat and reviewed the circumstances, identifying holes. He promised himself that he would come back better. In 2017, he scooped his best choreographer prize for the dance Musa.
“The art was in the simplicity,” says Lukamasia. The dance revolves around a distasteful man with a tight leash on his daughter. It is about triumph, staying power.
“Going into the finals, Lukamasia felt he had a winning product in his hands and when the announcement came, he remembered with fondness his school days at Kakamega High School where he majored in drama, and then when he auditioned for a place at KU.