Irish theatre company creates play for Kenyan coastal community

Shortlisted for National PPI Radio Drama Awards
22nd September 2008

Irish theatre company creates play for Kenyan coastal community

(Irish Times Article)

By Tom Swift

It’s a scorching hot afternoon just south of the equator on the Kenyan coast and a group of Irish actors is performing a play for the locals about issues affecting their community. It sounds surreal, and it was. But for those of us who were involved it was also an inspiring and moving experience.

It started nine months earlier when Trocaire asked me and director Jo Mangan (with whom I run The Performance Corporation) if we would volunteer to create an issues-based play for a community in Kenya. We did not need to be asked twice. The project got the green light once funding had been secured from Development Cooperation Ireland and the cultural relations committee of the Department of Arts. Then a cast of four actors (Niamh Daly, Peter Daly, Lynda Gough and Fergal McElherron) was gathered and we were on our way to Nairobi.

The work was a collaborative effort with our Kenyan partners Amani People’s Theatre (A.P.T). The company was formed following an outbreak of tribal conflict which rocked Kenya in 1992 and since then the company has been using Forum theatre in marginalized communities to help them deal with contentious issues.

In this style of theatre there is rarely a script per se and the audience are invited to become “spect-actors” – in other words to join the cast on stage and perform. The theory is that dramatizing a community’s problems and allowing audience input gives people the chance to act out solutions to conflicts and problems in a safe environment.

After a week of acclimatising to the new culture and the African heat, the theatrical exchange of ideas began in earnest. As the project’s writer, I had begun researching the issues and creating a storyline. Meanwhile A.P.T. veteran Amollo Amollo held workshops for the actors in Forum theatre as well as African song and dance. Jo Mangan introduced the Kenyan actors to the art of physical theatre, improvisation and the process of devising a play.

It was decided that we would perform the finished play for members of the Lamukani community group on Kenya’s south coast. The group has close links with A.P.T which regularly sends facilitators for Forum theatre workshops. Now we had an audience.

To make the project work, it was essential that the play should be relevant. Lamukani is next door to the exclusive Diani Beach resort and many of the people’s problems stem from tourism. HIV/AIDS is a big issue, as is “land grabbing” – a practice whereby outsiders illegally fence off beachfront property to build villas and hotels because the local people can’t prove their ownership of the land. Other problems facing local people include domestic violence and “girlchild marriages” involving children as young as ten years old.

I was told that some members of the community had poor English so I decided to create a story outline which was essentially a fable touching on issues the people from Kenya’s south coast would identify with. The play was called Paka – the story of an unusual baby boy who is found in a spinach field and taken in by Miriam – a 12-year-old who’s been married off to a violent old drunk named Isaac. Paka grows up astonishingly fast and has a knack for asking everyone he meets awkward questions which eventually cause him to be cast out of his village. On his travels he meets many weird and wonderful tribes whose strange cultures represent issues like HIV/AIDS and “land grabbing”.

With two weeks to go to our performance we had a story but no script. Time was against us and the devising process took on a feverish intensity – especially with the tropical sun raising temperatures in our rehearsal room to over 30 degrees Celsius. To create the script we divided the cast into groups and asked them to improvise versions of each scene using different styles or techniques. One group was asked to interpret a scene solely through dance while another group improvised the story in pantomime style – much to the bemusement and amusement of the Kenyan actors. The results were videoed, reviewed and whittled down to a final draft within the space of two days – two days of virtually no sleep and lots of strong Kenyan coffee.

Then we hit a slight problem. After the first read-through of the script I was told by A.P.T. actor Susan Chege who was familiar with the Lamukani community that most of them had virtually no English. We’d been told before we went to Nairobi that Kenyans are often reluctant to convey bad news but this seemed a little late in the day for this kind of bombshell.

All was not lost. We had always known that most community members had limited English and on mature reflection we all came to the conclusion that the story was very easy to follow. The physicality of the piece and the use of music and mime would make it easy to follow – even for someone with no English. In addition we had some of the script translated into Swahili. As the Irish contingent’s Swahili swot, Peter Daly volunteered to deliver a couple of lines in the local language and Niamh Daly sang a traditional Kenyan lament.

After nearly five weeks we were ready to perform. But we were totally unprepared for the reception we got to Lamukani. Dozens of waving children ran after the bus as we arrived in the compound shouting a welcoming chorus of “Karibu!”. It seemed as if the whole community had turned out – many of them already waiting for us in the shade of a big tree for our performance.

But first the entire audience along with the cast were asked to get to their feet for an “energizer”. After five minutes of traditional song and dance the audience had been quite literally warmed up and the show got underway. The community seemed fascinated and entertained in equal measures by the play. In rehearsals we had worried that the final scene which includes an element of audience participation might not work. There was no need. The audience literally stormed the stage, swamping the cast. Then instead of polite curtain calls an elder started up a song and suddenly everyone was up dancing.

Once the mayhem had subsided everyone sat down while the cast “replayed” part of the play and the forum theatre element began. Audience members were then urged to question the characters from the play about their actions and the issues involved. The big talking points were Paka’s adoption and the problem of domestic violence. No point of view was censored with some older men in the group suggesting that the baby Paka was a devil who should have been left to die. Those with strong opinions were then invited to take part as one of the characters and re-enact a scene in the way they would have liked to see the story. The entire performance was light years from anything The Performance Corporation had ever done.

The experience of performing at Lamukani was an emotional and immensely humbling one. But I could not help asking myself how much a group of affluent Irish people from a vastly different background had really contributed to this community and whether we had (to use a cliché) “made a difference”. As I was pondering this question, one of the community members approached me. He thanked me and said: “The fact that you have come here today has given us the strength to continue. It shows us that we are not forgotten”. I think I had my answer.

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