alexa Why vernacular plays rule the stage - Daily Nation

Why vernacular plays rule the stage

Friday September 5 2014

Michael Awiti as Osiany (left), Jessica Mac'Onyango as Maid (centre) and Steve Ogana as Jatelo in the Luo play

Michael Awiti as Osiany (left), Jessica Mac'Onyango as Maid (centre) and Steve Ogana as Jatelo in the Luo play "Kanungo e teko" at the Kenya national theatre on September 30 2012. PHOTO| PHOEBE OKALL 

By Anyiko Owoko

The use of vernacular on the Kenyan entertainment scene is on the rise, as the ever-lingering debate of tribalism continues to spark conversation around the country.

A Luo stand-up comedy show by Heartstrings Entertainment opened at the Alliance Française gardens last month to a monstrous audience.

Earlier on in April, Arena Media held Nairobi’s first Luo Festival, a first of a kind.

The two-day event at Carnivore grounds presented to a varied audience an array of entertainment, including a fashion show, traditional dances, Luo comedy and music. Iddi Achieng’, Lady Maureen, John Junior, Dola Kabari, Princess Jully and Makadem were among the top musicians, who performed at the festival.

Adhiambo Opondo, the head of operations at Arena Media, the production company that organised the Luo Festival, and which also stages Luo plays, says: “We want to appreciate our native people, but that doesn’t exclude others. You don’t have to be Luo to attend our productions.”

Fanaka Arts Theatre’s last Kikuyu play (staged in the first week of August), was Nikii Wonire. The director at Fanaka, Eric Ndung’u, confirms that their next production, a Kikuyu play, will be staged this month at Nairobi’s Alliance Française.


Heartstrings Entertainment holds vernacular theatre or comedy shows every six weeks, each running six times for two weeks.

Veteran director Sammy Mwangi confirms that Heartstring’s main shows are in Kikuyu and Luo, with some in English.

Mwangi directing plays in Luo with ease is thanks to his childhood brush with Luos while growing up in Eastlands.


“Even though I can’t speak Luo, I understand it 100 per cent” he says. “Kenyans are bound to misinterpret use of vernacular in theatre and comedy, but I chose to work with vernacular more than English and Swahili because I am a producer and director first. Whatever I do is part of my job and I am qualified to do it; my tribe isn’t a qualification.

“There are people who want to watch entertainment in vernacular; some don’t understand English plays the way they relate to those in their vernacular.

Nevertheless, I really wish I could have all our shows represent all the Kenyan tribes. But if I was to do a comedy in Taita, tell me how many Taitas are in Kenya and would attend? No matter the language, laughter and comedy is universal.”

The question of whether vernacular theatre propagates negative tribalism is one directors cannot run away from.

Sammy Mwangi says 70 per cent of the people who come to watch English and Swahili productions are a different lot from the ones who fancy vernacular entertainment.

“All our productions, irrespective of the language, vary according to themes and seasons.

For instance, the Luo stand-up comedy was simply about Luos, and not all Kenyans. It was modelled to have Luos speaking to Luos and not Luos speaking to Luo Kenyans. Only a particular tribe can holistically discuss their tribe’s tendencies.

“As the makers of these productions, we are only providing a space for conversations, because it’s easier for people of the same tribe to speak to, or ridicule, each other.”

Reminiscing on Arena Media’s past Luo plays at the Kenya National Theatre, Adhiambo Opondo, also an actress, says: “I learnt to express myself confidently in Luo while on stage. Additional to entertainment, vernacular plays give a chance to parents in urban areas to bring their children to learn the language and speak fluently.” Arena Media also uses plays to correct societal ills “in a comical way,” she adds.

Renowned theatre director Victor Ber (formerly of Heartstrings Theatre) says: “Tribalism is not a problem and it is not bad; what matters is understanding tribalism. I don’t mind having a vernacular play if it isn’t designed to attack or ridicule other tribes and national heritage.”

"Ber confirms that he has plans to revive the late 90s hit, Villages of Kenya Festival — what he cites as the pioneer of vernacular entertainment on the urban scene. Villages of Kenya would showcase comedy and plays in English and all Kenyan tribes.

“The festival at Alliance Française ran for a month and that’s exactly how I want to bring it back, by end of this year or early 2015,” says Ber, adding, “Nairobi is socially developed so we have learnt to trust almost anyone, regardless of tribe.

However, it will take a while for the rest of Kenyans to get accustomed to that.

The more we stage vernacular shows, the more we will allow people to trust their tribes and cultivate a better understanding of tribe.”


At the same time, Mwangi credits cultural centres like Alliance Française for the survival of theatre in the country.

“Without finances to pay for space and the actors, I will be banking on people to buy tickets to fund upcoming productions, but I don’t have to any more, as theatre lovers come in masses right now — which wasn’t the case a few years ago.”

Most of the Luo and Kikuyu plays that have been staged at the national theatre under Arena Media and Culture Spills Production were normally sold out.

Adhiambo says: “The last Luo play we had was beautiful. Theatre is like music; you don’t have to understand it. I actually watch Kikuyu plays and give feedback from understanding just the theatrics.”

 As theatre fans and industry players wait for KNT’s facelift, Mwangi says:

“The government talks about youth, arts and funds but the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts hasn’t given theatre priority. Drama isn’t served as a main course at local universities; it’s even bigger at the clubs level.

After winners at the National Drama Festivals go to perform at State House for the president, what happens next?”

Through Heartstrings Entertainment, Mwangi wants to decentralise theatre and drama to mashinani — staging vernacular theatre in different counties and within marginalised communities.