Why the ‘liberated’ national theatre should fulfil Kenyans’ deferred dreams

Sunday September 6 2015

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) chats with renowned writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o during the re-opening of Kenya National Theatre on September 4, 2015. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) chats with renowned writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o during the re-opening of Kenya National Theatre on September 4, 2015. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

The occasion of re-opening the revamped National Theatre is simultaneously a re-enactment of the spirit of our history but also an enactment of its revival.

In 1952, the year this theatre was built, was also the year that Jomo Kenyatta, leader of the Kenya African Union (KAU), was put in prison.

He had a theatre background. In 1937, he had acted in the film, Sanders of the River alongside the great Paul Robeson, who sang Let my People Go.

It was also the year that Dedan Kimathi, leader of KAU’s armed wing, Land and Freedom Army, which the colonial State renamed the mumbo-jumbo sounding Mau Mau, fled into the mountains. He, too, had a theatre background: he founded Gichamu Youth Theatre at Karuna-ini, Nyeri. It was a year of theatre.

On the National Theatre stage today are President Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo Kenyatta; and Mukami Kimathi, wife of Dedan Kimathi. So this space, this occasion, is pregnant with memories of the past and the promises of tomorrow.

In 1975, Micere Mugo and I wrote a play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. You would have thought that after Independence, Dedan Kimathi would have been hailed as the great liberator. Instead there was marked silence about him and the heroic guerrilla army he led.

The challenge for us, as we wrote in the preface of the published script, was to depict the masses, symbolised by Kimathi in the only historically correct perspective: heroically and as the true makers of history!

The play was going to represent Kenya in the Second World Black and African Festival and Arts and Culture (Festac) held in Nigeria in 1977, and to be fair, the Ministry of Culture of the time, was very supportive.

But we thought that Kenyans had the right to be the first to see what was going to represent them abroad. And what better venue than their own National Theatre?

That was when a nightmare in daytime started. We could not get a foothold on our national theatre space. But there was plenty of space for such plays as the French Ballet, Jesus Christ Superstar, Anne Get Your Gun, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the [Roman] Forum, and other imports from Broadway and West End. Eventually after a struggle, and frankly, some press outcry about a handcuff for the Kimathi play, we were given three days.

Contrary to the dire predictions of our detractors, for the three days allotted to the play, the theatre was packed by men and women some of whom came from the so-called Africa locations in Nairobi and its environs.

Actually it was a sight to see: the space which previously had been the exclusive domain of three-piece suited gentlemen and high-heeled ladies bedecked with pearls and imitation diamonds was now occupied by a whole range of people, families, ordinary farmers, workers, students, who after every performance would join the actors for the final procession that spilled from inside the buildings into the streets.

It was amidst this euphoria over the successful run, that I was summoned to the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department, and the first question really startled me: Why were we interfering with European theatre? We were only doing African theatre, Kenyan theatre, and how did that interfere with European theatre? I asked.

Because after Kimathi, there was relatively small attendance at the European comedies that followed. I told him that Festac ’77, the name of the company that performed the play, had done their Kenyan act, and left the premises. His parting shot was a warning: he would plant his men inside our group. I began to understand.

The scene would repeat itself in 1982, when the men and women of Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre, who in 1977 had performed the Gikuyu language play, Ngaahika Ndeenda/I will marry when I want, co-authored with the late Ngugi wa Mirii, and which sent me to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison for most of 1978, wanted to bring another Gikuyu language play, Maitu Njugira/Mother Sing for Me, to this very National Theatre.

We had properly booked the theatre, met all the legal and financial requirements, but on the day of the performance, we found the doors into the National Theatre padlocked and armed police patrolling the area. Maitu Njugira remains a suspended dream, these last 30 years, for I could never bring myself to have it done outside Kenyan soil.

I would like to see this National Theatre, by what it does, the tradition it sets up, always be a tribute to the heroism of Kenyan men and women who made our history with their sacrifice of sweat and blood.

This includes all those young men and women who were hounded to prison, exile and death during the Nyayo era for exercising their right to organise.

Mr Thiong’o is a distinguished professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. This is an abridged version of his keynote address at the reopening of the Kenya National Theatre on September 4.