Nairobi Performing Arts Studio is putting up a new musical at the Kenya National Theatre.
Sarafina will run for two weekends, with the first one starting on July 12 to 15. Based on a combination of both the original play and movie by the same title, the South African creation will be gracing the Kenyan theatre stage for the second time since 2003. Back then, Leleti Khumalo, the original actress who played Sarafina, and the playwright Mbongeni Ngema were invited to watch it.
Mkamzee Mwatela plays Mary Masembuko, a history teacher who refuses to teach the whitewashed version of history, whether it puts black people or white people in bad light. She played Sarafina in the first staging.
“It’s a very popular show. Last time we had to put in an extra show that wasn’t in the plans. The idea is to bring back numbers to the theatres,” says Mkamzee about why the show was settled on.
The idea is also about remembering works by African people. Sarafina’s music was composed and played by the ear.
The play will see a main cast of many first timers. Award-winning Kenyan musician, Gilad Millo, has not been on stage since he played Oliver Twist as a 19-year-old in high school.
Not only that, the 46-year-old is playing two roles meshed into one character; Lieutenant Bloem and the Interrogator. He was ready to do it when director Stuart Nash pitched it to him, but now realises how hard it is.
“I’m at rehearsals three times a week. I have quite a few lines to memorise, and I’m not as experienced as the other actors so I have had to catch up really fast. I’m an actor by personality, my friends know me to do imitations, not scripts,” said Gilad.
He has been having a great experience, feeding off the more seasoned actors and production crew. The challenge to play an evil white man who despises black people, to the point of calling one character “monkey”, showed especially when he had difficulty casting in front of his daughter the first time.
“For a white man living in Kenya, it is very intense and graphic – I kill and torture people – but that’s theatre and you’re allowed to be in character. If I come off too soft, I won’t give justice to the message against racism in the story,” says the musician who has enrolled his daughter as his lines partner when at home.
Patrick Oketch, famous as Charlie in Mother-in-Law, plays Sabela – a nasty policeman who is sexually attracted to Sarafina. It is also his first time in a musical even though he will not do any singing and dancing. The production’s run coincided with his availability period and he agreed to the director’s request to appear on it.
ICING ON THE CAKE
“Also, you see people onscreen and you would love to share a stage or scene with them. Mkamzee, Brenda, Hellen, and – the icing on the cake – Gilad,” says Patrick.
He says art is supposed to mimic human feelings, situations, understandings and their reaction with their environment.
Sarafina’s relevance to the Kenyan situation can be seen in the teargassing of Lang’ata Primary School pupils and the storming of University of Nairobi hostels, or shooting of the student leader of Meru University by those entrusted to uphold the law.
He calls it the oppression of children, even though there are no colonisers here. Sabela epitomises this and tribal discrimination. Patrick encourages students to watch the show and even ask questions afterwards.
Brenda Wairimu, who plays the titular character, will be appearing on stage for only the second time in her career. She says no actress says “no” to Sarafina.
“If your main prerogative is to tell African stories, you just say 'yes'. As far as I know, Leleti hasn’t done other major roles and she became a legend because of how well she played her role,” says Brenda.
She realised later that she would have to improve her dancing and singing after accepting the role and she’s had to work on improving her steps and vocal range, which has been a bit of pressure on the famed actress. From a poll they conducted on social media on whether to maintain the South African accent or “Kenyanise” the speech, the feedback was split down the middle. So she has a couple of songs on repeat to get the words right.
“It’s a very South African story but its theme is something that has and still is happening in many countries; you will still be able to identify with the issues,” she says.