Ngugi’s play a triumph for freedom of expression

“It was a reincarnation,” Margaret Mirii, wife of the deceased coauthor of Ngaahika Ndeenda told Weekender on the opening night of the English translation of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s and Ngugi wa Mirii’s controversial play.

Speaking from eye-witness experience, Mrs Mirii had been there in 1977 to see not only her husband’s revolutionary production but her mother’s performance as one of the village dancers in the show.

Last Thursday night’s marvelous opening was actually the world premiere of ‘I Will Marry When I Want’ since it had never been produced before. But the following Saturday, the original Kikuyu production was staged for the first time since it was banned.

“We were committed to doing both versions back-to-back,” said Director Stuart Nash who is also founder-artistic director of Nairobi Performing Arts Studio.

The wisdom of his choice was illustrated moments before the show began with an audio endorsement of it by Ngugi wa Thiong’o himself who spoke from Irvine where he is Professor of Comparative Literature at University of California.

Nash then spoke about the “elephant in the room”, the issue of why a Briton would produce this play.

The real issue now is whether it’s worth watching this 45-year-old play, which is definitely yes if you are a theatre lover. Yes, I will marry raises tonnes of contentious point about Kenyan society which are unfortunately just as timely today as they were back then.

Nonetheless, times have changed and ever since Caroline Elkins’ award winning book, Britain’s Gulag came out, some of the most brutal revelations about the torturous conditions that British colonials and their cruel home guards put Kenyans through is now common knowledge.

Now the stunning recollections of torture and exploitation shared by Kiguunda (Bilab Mwaura) and Gicaamba (Martin Kigondu) can no longer be the basis for what led to the play’s banning after thousands had seen the show at Kamiriithu in 1977.

It’s the post-colonial story of Kiguumba, Wangeci (Nice Githinji), and their daughter Gathoni (Anne Stella) that makes I will marry still feel fresh and timely. And what makes the play so profound is that the protagonists are peasants and workers, whose voices we rarely hear revealing their struggles and survival strategies.

What’s so beautiful about both the English and Kikuyu versions of the show is that either way, you can’t miss the humour, wit, and wisdom as well as the reality of Kenyan society in which the home guards reaped the spoils of Independence while those who fought for it did not.

What’s equally amazing is that the show has marvelous live music, beautifully painted backdrops, well-choreographed flashbacks, and superb acting by Kenyan professionals.

What’s most compelling about the play is the dynamic interactions first between Kiguunda and his wife Wangechi, who await the mysterious arrival of Kiguunda’s stingy boss Kioi (Martin Githinji) who’s coming to see him at his humble home.

She expects it’s about their title deed which Kiguunda values above all else. But then she decides it’s about an anticipated marriage between Gathoni and their son John. Sadly, she’s got it all wrong.

Then, when Gicaamba shows up, he shares truths about the exploitative system that he and his people are being strangled by. (That’s the stuff the powers-that-be didn’t want the public to hear)

The scene gets wildly uncomfortable when Kioi, his snobbish wife (Angel Waruinge) and another couple from church finally arrive. Their mission apparently is to convert the family. Their real goal is to grab Kiguunda’s land.

Their plan is almost scuttled by Kioi’s friend Ngugire telling all about how he, as a former home guard, gained his riches, his land, and salvation as ‘gifts from God’ not as rewards for torturing and killing his fellow Kenyans in service to his coloniser boss.

The play reveals a deep class analysis translated into an impassioned drama that ultimately leads to Kiguunda’s and Nice’s total disillusionment with his boss and despair for having lost his land in the name of religion.

They should have listened to warnings from their friends, that the rich marry the rich, never the poor. They should have never imagined their daughter’s relationship with the boss’s son would end well. Which it did not.

In the end, I will marry has a militant yet magnificent finale, one that will leave you relieved, upbeat, and hopeful that social change is still a real possibility.

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