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THEATRE REVIEW: Life and times of Tom Mboya reincarnated on stage

Monday November 18 2019

 The Too Early For Birds cast in a scene from the Tom Mboya Edition. PHOTO | Marcus Olang' (stillsbymarcus.com)

The Too Early For Birds cast in a scene from their Tom Mboya Edition showcase. PHOTO | Marcus Olang' (stillsbymarcus.com)  

By DOREEN WAMUGUNDA

“Dossier Dossier! Dossier come!”

This was the memorable chant that closed the fifth instalment of Too Early for Birds (TEFB). This latest edition was a recollection of the life of Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya aka Tom Mboya or as the show teasingly nick-named him, TJ.

The Tom Mboya edition might have been the most popular instalment of TEFB yet. It had four sold-out shows in October and two re-runs in November.

Inside the Visa Oshwal Community Centre auditorium, the stage lights came on signalling the start of what would be three hours of an exhilarating experience.

The stage dressing (wood/cardboard props covered in newspaper pages) was curiously minimalist.

The show started on an interesting note with Tom Mboya reading out a letter he had received from Martin Luther King Jr. Going by the excited murmurs that ran through the auditorium, few people were aware of this fact of Mboya’s life.

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MAMA AFRICA

As the show carried on, it was evident that the writers had gone to great lengths to recreate all aspects of Tom Mboya’s life. Mboya’s boldness, as the narrators sought to prove, was unmatched.

In the first half of the show, the writers diligently reincarnated Tom Mboya as the young trade union leader who fearlessly stood up to white employers and who went on to establish the only successful student airlift program ever (a program that also led to a heated standoff between the UK and the USA governments). As the cast dramatically insisted, Tom Mboya had balls.

A very interesting narration was that of Tom Mboya’s love life. His marriage to Pamela Odede in what is still Nairobi’s most lavish wedding to date, his reign as Kenya’s most eligible bachelor in the ‘50s/‘60s and his little-known affairs with famous women, including Miriam Makeba, were just a few highlights of Mboya's love life.

He disappointed many hopeful ladies by joking that his heart only belonged to Mama Africa.

The props in this edition were few but memorable. One striking prop was the cigarette that the young Mboya and his friends at Ruskin College puffed on as he mused about his plans for Kenya.

This hilariously implied that some of Tom Mboya’s biggest accomplishments, like becoming a leader in KAU and fighting for the release of freedom fighters, were conceptualised ‘mid-puff’.

THE BEGINNING OF AN END

The second half of the show dubbed, The Beginning of an End was slightly less energetic than the first half. This was, probably, a tactic meant to build up solemnity as the show approached its heart-wrenching climax: Tom Mboya’s assassination. In the second half, the auditorium was enveloped in grave-yard silence as the audience anticipated the inevitable fate of the reincarnated Mboya.

Actor Xavier Ywaya, who portrayed Tom Mboya in
Actor Xavier Ywaya, who portrayed Tom Mboya in the show, falls during the assassination scene. PHOTO | MARCUS OLANG' (stillsbymarcus.com)

A few gasps could be heard when the sound of gunshots rang through the auditorium. This time, the most memorable prop was the pharmacy door where Mboya stood when he was shot at. In some way, the door symbolised the exit of Tom Mboya. The melancholy soundtracks and actual footage from Tom Mboya’s burial certainly brought back the collective grief that Kenyans had felt half a century before.

The script-writing for the Tom Mboya edition was brilliant, brazen and deceptively reckless. The many flashbacks created some much-needed suspense.

The writers had no shortage of puns tucked into the performance. Most were funny and straightforward, some were slightly more detailed and took the audience about half a minute to grasp, while a few others were downright bad but hilarious nonetheless.

For the most part, however, the comical content was heavily satirical. It was interesting how the audience immediately caught on to the subtle quips about incompetent state officers and non-functioning government offices.

At several points in the show, you could hear the hesitant laughter of a few people who found a remark funny but could not ignore the underlying meaning.

The costume selection for the show was simple but efficient. From the khaki shorts that Tom Mboya was forced to wear as a sanitation inspector to the silk/cotton buttoned-up blouses that the young women donned, the costumes were impressively representative of fashion trends in Tom Mboya’s time.

The sounds for the show were also brilliantly selected with occasional funny sound cues and catchy music including Sho Madjozi’s John Cena. At one point in the show, the audience chanted along to the popular (currently banned) social anthem, Wamlambez by Sailors.

The cast members of Too Early for Birds: Tom
The cast members of Too Early for Birds: Tom Mboya Edition. PHOTO | Marcus Olang' (stillsbymarcus.com)

STANDING OVATION

As the show came to a close, a couple of hard realizations hit home. First, the writers had intentionally/unintentionally created more questions around the assassination of Tom Mboya.

Secondly, 8-4-4 history lessons are, quite obviously, severely diluted. Third, it is quite possible that the national heroes we like to constantly celebrate had a hand in each other's deaths.

The Tom Mboya edition was a careful blend of passable narrations, intelligent humour and energetic acting that made for an entertaining evening. The show successfully used a larger, clearer lens to re-examine Tom Mboya’s legacy. Tom Mboya is finally seen not only as a national hero but also as the young man who boldly challenged his superiors and attracted ladies like a magnet.

All in all, the makers of Too Early for Birds created a brilliant show, worthy of the standing ovation it received at the end. It will be interesting to see how the show fairs in subsequent editions.

Will this blossoming community of free-thinking, conspiracy-weaving, history-restoring, lovers of theatre keep up their boldness in the coming years?

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