1982 is a significant year in Kenya’s history, owing to the political unrest leading to and following the attempted coup d’etat in August that year.
It also marks, according to the theatre scholar Mshaï Mwangola, “the end of one era of theatrical performance in Kenya,” after the production of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Maitu Njugira.
All over the world, wherever there is an oppressive regime, theatre is often the first victim.
Fortunately, Kenyan artists have enjoyed freedom of expression in recent years and in theatre, the re-emergence of a true people’s theatre can be seen in the production of Mheshimiwa Kihii, by Edwardo Waigwa and Thiong’o Kanyari, performed by Impressionist Theatre at the Kenya Cultural Centre, on Friday March 11.
The title of the play initially stirred a lot of controversy owing to the tribalist connotations that the word Kihii is associated with.
However, Kihii here does not refer to its face-value meaning, “uncircumcised man” but rather, it’s true meaning which is “immature man.”
Waigwa and Kanyari address an issue which has perhaps been long-overdue in modern Kikuyu culture, and that is the role of circumcision as a rite of passage for 13 or 14-year-old boys, often carried out in hospitals under local anaesthesia, in the absence of the traditional instructions that outline what is expected of a man in society.
In fact, the play exposes the widespread alcoholism and consequent impotence among men and promiscuity among women.
A member of the chorus talks about how she often finds her son sprawled on the ground in a drunken stupor and how her daughter does not know who the fathers of her children are, since she is always too drunk to recognise or remember them during the encounters that lead to the children’s conception.
“Ni kaba kugimara gatagati ka matu. (Better to be mature between the ears) than to be mature between the legs,” she laments in typical Kikuyu bluntness.
The president, Kiongi (Moses Macharia) holds a baraza with his fellow power brokers Kimunya (Moffat Nyagah), Kimata (Samwel Mararo) and Kanua Njeke (Irene Wambui).
As he waits for Kimunya and Kanua Njeke to arrive, a chorus is heard in the background: “Ihii cia murimo uria, ikwenda kurua. (The boys on that ridge need to be circumcised).
Kiongi looks about nervously and Kimata (who also looks ill-at-ease) asks him, “Have you not been, you know…,” alluding to, in the words of Kanyari, political immaturity.
The play does not only address cultural issues but social and political ones as well.
When the meeting begins, Kanua Njeke, outnumbered by the three men, has to constantly assert or defend herself especially against Kimunya, who makes disdainful or condescending remarks to her or about her.
She sits at their far right, and has to crane her neck to see the paper that outlines the public land that they are sharing among themselves, even though they eventually allot her a share of the spoils.
The set comprises the front of a modern house against the back wall, with four chairs in front of it, where the baraza is held.
At stage right, is the entrance to a traditional hut and stage left, is the entrance to a church.
Thus, this modern government is flanked by traditional heritage on one side and christian values on the other.
The chorus, dressed in red and black enters between scenes, with songs written by Kinyua Mundia and dances choreographed by John Mudembo, accompanied by a guitar or accordion, rich in rhetoric, addressing issues like land and joblessness.
Minor but prototypical characters are played by members of the chorus who wear a dress over their red and white costume or merely changed their trousers in the case of male characters, a hallmark of theatricalism, in which theatre mechanics are exposed.
The powerful impact of the play stems from this theatricalism.
For those who are too young to remember or to understand why Kamiriithu Theatre was razed in 1982, this play illustrates the power of theatre as a weapon against oppression.
The play is written by people for whom, Kikuyu is the language of their hearts — the language they think in and in which they express themselves best.
It therefore triumphs not only in its use of theatrical imagery but also in its command of poetic metaphor.
It is understandable that African art flourishes when expressed in an African language, but it is regrettable that this confines it to its immediate community.