Woodcreek School is only five years old, but from the outset, it was designed with the arts in mind.
“Our auditorium can seat 450 comfortably, plus we have music labs, a recording studio, a room-full of musical instruments, and an art room,” Jairo Abego tells the BDLife on the final day of the school’s performance of Mekatilili wa Menza.
The producer of the school’s first major musical doesn’t have time to complete the listing of all the arts-related activities available at the school. The Sunday matinee of Mekatilili is about to begin, but he is keen to give me a briefing on his school’s commitment to training Kenyan youth in the arts.
Abego’s enthusiasm was magnified in the 92 cast members who took part in the three-and-a-half-hour musical about one of Kenya’s most important female freedom fighters.
“It was more than 92. It was more like 125,” says the show’s director Lewis Xavier who adds the 30 dancers that give the production so much colour, vibrancy, and joy. Then there are 33 more in the choir, according to Abego who, as producer keeps tabs on all those figures for logistical purposes.
The orchestra pit is also occupied by half-a-dozen more musicians who provide not just the live music to accompany the choir, but also the audio-atmospherics as when, for instance, Mepoho (Ann Nyandia) performs her Giriama magic which gives Mekatilili so much power she cannot die, even after being shot several times by African home guards.
The aesthetics of Mekatilili are another stand-out spectacular feature of the show. From the costuming and thoughtful set construction to the props and attractive face painting, every scene is filled with a blend of beauty, colour, and energy. The face paint has special significance since it dramatises specific features of the characters, such as the blindness of the Giriama traitor, Ngonyo (Ivan Wandabwa) who spies for the Coloniser Hobley (Micah Mumo).
Then, there is the strength and conviction of Mekatilili (Nikita Wakonyu), and the wild cats that lurk in the no man’s land our heroine has to traverse to return home to lead her people against the British oppressors.
But apart from the impeccable care given to all these technical features of the musical, it is the remarkable story of Mekatilili, as interpreted and scripted by Andrew Tumbo, that makes us marvel that it has taken Kenyans so long to bring her to life on stage.
The only flaw that I found in the show was the number and length of dances that stretched out the production far longer than necessary. The dancers were beautiful as were the costumes, but the story nearly got lost in all the dance interludes that may have been good for the sake of students’ inclusion, but they diminished the quality of the performance somewhat.
Otherwise, what I have always loved about Mekatilili’s story is her militancy, vision, tenacity, and focused motivation. She is one of Kenya’s most important freedom fighters. She was a leader and courageous truth-teller who the British banished from her land because she was such a threat to them.
Andrew Tumbo’s script also has a fearlessly feminist touch to it. He highlights the roles of female seers like Syokimau (Ellene Njeri) and Bi Shamsi (Tessie Waruguru) as well as leaders like Wangu wa Makeri (Sheryl Siako), and Mepoho (Ann Nyandia) whose psychic powers are so strong that she can share them with Mekatilili who in turn, is enabled to essentially ‘rise from the dead’ after being shot severally by a whole squad of African home guards.
Mekatilili was banished to Western Kenya. But despite the hardships and tragedies (including the violent murder of her son (Victor Githu), she was determined to return home to lead her people’s struggle to protect not only their land but also their culture and their religion.
According to Tumbo’s interpretation, Mekatilili faulters after her son’s cruel demise (her weeping went on too long) and almost gives up the fight. But she’s consoled and told to remember her destiny and her people by Bi Shamsi. So she makes it back but quickly gets grabbed again after the treacherous Ngonyo tells Hobley she’s back.
But before she gets nabbed, Mekatilili’s new-found powers come to light. For instance, at her welcome home bash, she becomes a seer who now knows the traitor in their midst is Ngonyo. And after she’s grabbed and shot, she rises from the dust, thus confirming the spirit of Mekatilili will never die.
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