THEATRE: Play gets into the mind of a terrorist and his prisoner

Set in Somalia, ‘A Man Like You’ premiered at the Braeburn Austin theatre on Tuesday.

Friday March 4 2016

Patrick North (right, played by Tom Walsh) is held captive by two Somali youth Abdi (played by Maina Olwenya) In the play 'A Man Like You' showing on March 8 at the Braeburn Theatre in Nairobi. PHOTO| SILVIA CASSINI 

By GLORIA MWANIGA
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Religious extremism and terrorism continue to be a puzzle to nations the world over. From the ISIS menace in Syria, Al-Shabaab killings in Somalia to the Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria, droves of youth are becoming increasingly radicalised.

However, experts and intellectuals still can’t put a finger to what exactly makes many young people choose this path. Consequently, as is the case with other little understood issues, several stereotypes and innumerable narratives get constructed around the

matter.

This issue is a dominant theme in the play A Man Like You, which Kenyan-born playwright and director Silvia Cassini has partnered with The Theatre Company to stage.

The play premiered in Nairobi at the Braeburn Austin theatre on Tuesday March 1 and is set in two places; a windowless room in  modern-day Somalia and the living room of a diplomat’s house in a leafy Nairobi suburb.

In Somalia, a British diplomat, Patrick North (played by Tom Walsh) is held captive by two Somali youth. As the play begins, we encounter the two men who seem worlds apart. One is a privileged white ‘expert’ on Somali affairs and the other is a Somali

youth reporting to war lords in a country torn asunder by war.

Act one opens somberly, with a handcuffed North being brought into the room and manacled onto the lone bed by Abdi (played by Maina Olwenya). The two, after spending hours together in the windowless room, discover that they really need each other’s

company. Soon enough, humanity triumphs against hostility and they discard their captor-hostage relationship for a more amicable one. Patrick and Abdi become something of allies and engage in deep conversations that range from religious extremism, to the

role played by the west in creation of terrorist extremists, and why terrorism seems to appeal to youth born in war regions. Western capitalism ideals and stereotypes are cleverly discoursed even as both actors embark on a journey that changes their world views.

NOT EXACTLY FRIENDS

The huge metal door of the room is closely guarded the Somali-speaking Hassan (played by Amwoma Mboga). This door keeps the audience alive to the fact that the two men aren’t exactly friends.

It acts as a metaphor for the deceit that exists in the tangled vines of a skewed friendship the men are trying to build. That it is opened and closed vehemently from time to time reminds us that much as ideas flow freely from Abdi to North, the latter is still

prisoner and his freedom is only ideological.

On the other side of the set is North’s wife Elizabeth, played by Davina Leonard. She is the disconsolate wife of the missing Patrick North. A well-bred cultured lady, Elizabeth puts her life on hold to await the return of her husband whose life has become a

bargain chip. She counts the dragging days and engages in long monologues steeped in regret and nostalgia. Her loneliness and tears are so convincing one can’t help but nod approvingly when she loudly declares that “being a diplomat’s wife is a high price to

pay for love.”

They say that a character’s greatest impact on the audience is felt at her first stage entry. However, Davina’s  impact is felt throughout the play as she  tearfully expresses her frustration at losing  the father of her children.

Cassini managed to, through well developed dialogues, intelligently carry the audience’s imagination. She got us thinking about immigration policies, religious extremism and even about the intolerant nature of present-day cultures that fail to exist side by side.

Yet she does this subliminally while asking vital questions seldom asked. Questions like who the real terrorists are between the AK-47 and machete-wielding youth and the privileged, self-righteous elite who carry on ideological and policy-filled wars

The acting is sublime. The multiracial cast is made up of mostly professional actors who blend beautifully and bring out the universality of the themes tackled.

In an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, Cassini cleverly lets us in on the deepest fears of the captives and the minds and motives of rebels. The witty one-liners interspersed in the play succeed in relieving the tension that builds up in this suspense-

filled play.

The use of dim lights in the lone room excellently creates the mood of foreboding and dread which suite the events that unfold.

Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the twists and turns that came as the play nears its end. Stereotypes are broken, trust shattered and I remained gripping my seat as many theatre lovers will do , I reckon, when the play goes  live Off-Broadway next month.

Catch the play on Tuesday March 8 and Wednesday March 9 at Purdy Arms in Karen and on March 11 and 12 at the Braeburn Theatre. All shows will be at 7.30 pm.