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How theatre in Kenya has grown in leaps and bounds

By Tony Mochama February 29th, 2024 5 min read

This weekend at Braeburn Theatre sees the run of “Stories from the Capital of Broken Hearts,” a show exploring the dynamics of love in Nairobi through intergenerational conversations between the young and the old, told through stories and poems by Sitawa Namwalie, and directed by veteran master-thespian Mudamba Mudamba.

“Romantic love is not the only form of love that we have in our lives, thank goodness,” she states, “otherwise some of us would be doomed.”

Alongside younger poet-thespians Mufasa and Wanjiru, this play poetically explores the haunting we experience by the love we wished for and lost – from lovers, friends, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and those we lost to addiction.

And at Sh 3,000 at the gate, it is also twice the ticket price of the average play, which CS Ababu Namwamba (Ministry of Youth Affairs, Creative Economy and Sports) revealed as Sh 1,428 per head as he revealed the nominees of the Kenya Theatre Awards, set to take place on Thursday, February 28, at Safari Park.

Also read: Details of Ababu’s deal with Hollywood based Invention Studios

Describing his delight that his Ministry now has seized itself of the ‘Creative Economy’ (alongside Sports and Youth Affairs), the indefatigable CS expressed optimism at the enthusiastic attendance of theatre by Kenyans providing a revenue stream and livelihood to theatre practitioners, even as he pledged maximum government support to the creative economy from his Ministry.

“We want to anchor the theatre sector, and the arts generally in society, to provide jobs to talented youth, and with the government playing its role in supporting creative initiatives, and us talking to corporates, to partner more with theatre companies. The spinoff potential is massive…”

Peter Ndoria, the outgoing chairman of the Kenya Theatre Awards, added that we “now have younger, more vibrant audiences who have wholly embraced theatre as an art form. Coupled with this are the slew of new theatre groups, as well as some dominant ones that put up shows in 2023. If you look at the list of our nominees, you’ll see names like BTM (Beyond The Mainstream), Khweva, Igiza Arts and others, alongside the usual suspects. All these have brought new types of audiences to ‘mainstreamed’ theatre, taking it up as a vocation, not just a hobby.”

The unveiling day had that glaringly dazzling sunshine sheen on the rooftop of Talanta Plaza, where the Kenya Theatre Awards jurists were revealing the names of nominees of the thespians’ awards (in February), with CS Ababu Namwamba in well-shorn attendance.

Dorphan’s ‘Mwariama,’ Captain Otoyo’s ‘Will You Still Love Me in the Morning?’, Zippy Okoth (Mama’s Mirror), Andrew Tumbo (The Good, the Bad, and the Wolf), Aleya Kassam (Story Sosa), John Sibi Okumu (Oliver), Rokk of Ages, Heartstrings, playwrights like Dr Fred Mbogo (They That Have Missing Marks), schools like Braeburn and Brookhouse, as well as KCA University and KU University being just a few names in these awards that encompass 35 categories.

Also read: Theatre actor Alliwah David shares insights into mentoring MP Jalang’o

The Chair of the Kenya Theatre Awards, Mr Ndoria, was quick to add that most of the categories are still “up in the air, so get out there, online, and vote, as 20% of our determination will be from the public vote at the KTA.”

Introducing Ian Mbugua as a new jury member, even as veteran arts’ journalist and KTA top juror Margaretta wa Gacheru was profoundly thanked, a promise was made to go outside Nairobi in 2024 to “extend our wings and recognize other theatre practitioners in indigenous production.”

Dr Fred Mbogo, a university lecturer and one of the country’s most prolific playwrights, was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the theatre’s prospects.

“The theatre has been difficult. There are still issues with the economy,” the bespectacled-and-ruffled hair don says.

“Without money in people’s pockets, theatre becomes a luxury, a good of ostentation. Once we fix that economy, then perhaps we will be on the road to evening glory.”

He runs his hand through his hair, adjusts his spectacles, then adds: “But we have many theatre persons who drive against the oncoming waves of this poor economy to deliver great theatre. They are not many, and for these soldiers of the arts, these are the heroes. For the path is hard, yes, but the show must go on.”

Also read: Govt to build 5000-seater new theatre at Kenya National Theatre – DP Ruto

Dr Mbogo hopes that the new (CBC) curriculum will make the students fall in love with the arts as subjects in school. Perhaps the future of theatre is dazzlingly bright.

CS Ababu Namwamba, at this unveiling ceremony, praised the vibrant and diverse local theatre landscape and said the awards are “not just a recognition of the spirit of creativity that defines our nationhood, but beyond the applause, the honouring of icons which fuse (artistic) excellence with (creative) innovation,” going on to define artistic culture as the “fabric of our country, flag of our identity and soul of our nation.”

The CS’s Ministry has already operationalized the Talanta Hela, whose mission is to Identify, nurture, and monetize talent, and he revealed that the Ministry spent over Shs 277 million last year alone on this talent vision.

“We supported every theatre-related activity at the schools’ level, including the Kenya Music and Drama festivals (singling out Riara Springs’ The Eyes Have It), as well as the Youth Connect Conference in December that brought over 2,000 youth from all over the continent to Nairobi.”

Indeed, in the last decade, as per another seasoned theatre creator, performer, and university lecturer Dr. Zippy Okoth, in these last few years, the theatre has grown “from doing adapted comedies to wider genres like monologues, solo productions, and two-handers” that tackle more contemporary and topical issues from personal lives to public politics and the past in history.

“The growth of more theatre companies means more jobs not just for the performers but for the technical teams –stage managers, lighting and sound technicians, as well as set designers,” Dr. Zippy says. “We have also taken theatre to new undefined audiences (and undesignated stages) in restaurants, parks, pubs and the streets.”

Also read: ‘Sarafina’ the play enthralls Nairobi theatre goers

CS Ababu revealed that his best moment last year was when “I crossed over from the Kenya National Theatre to the Norfolk on Harry Thuku road, not a common journey, igniting the KTA with a cash award (Shs 100K) for every category winner in this competition; and it can only get bigger, better and swankier from us as we have firm and unequivocal support for the theatre arts in Kenya.”

“I am glad we now have many more new faces in the theatre space, as well as women performers taking up more places on stage,” Dr. Zippy said, breezily referencing ‘For Coloured Girls,’ one of the most attended plays last year that was sponsored by the European Union (with actresses from Denmark and Kenya), very well publicised and showcased across three cities – Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu.

With music, sports, and theatre well in the CS’s cultural fold, it only remains for the literary arts to start getting competitive creative grants for the Ministry, after many dead years, to have a full deck of cards, which CS Ababu promised to look into at the launch.

CS Ababu also revealed that the reason why the Kenya National Theatre is closed is “because it is undergoing a Shs 170 million renovation. It will be a great and spanking creative space in a few months.”

After COVID-19, in 2021, there were 33 professional theatrical performances in Kenya.

By last year, that number had soared to 443 productions, involving 131 theatre companies across the country.

“We, however, need to have more marketers focused on the theatre scene, the shows, and performance events as this will help increase income in the industry,” Dr. Zippy Okoth concludes. “The theatre industry has great potential, but there’s a need for more performance spaces to help diversify, to reach more audiences, and to help producers plan a better entertainment calendar.”