Sunday evening. 11 November 2022. Jain Bhavan Auditorium, Loresho.
Par Can lights glimmer starkly above the cast standing hip to hip. Hand in hand. Crew members in a horizontal file behind them. The auditorium lights dim slowly, the cast and crew bow to a chorus of spontaneous applause; rumour has it that this time for the last time.
But is it really the last time?
In true Too Early For Birds fashion, let’s begin this story at the end.
7.45pm. The show was supposed to start at 7pm but the curse of opening night is awake and adrift.
Finally, the lights dim and the curtains rise. The cast walks on stage in the black billowy robes of a church choir, and instructs the audience to stand for our National Anthem. The band launches into the gritty melodies of Wakadinali’s ‘Geri Inengi’ much to the amusement of the audience who sing along, bar for bar.
“Cheki fala amekam na amezubaa amecheki ati Subaru ya mambaru imekam na imejaa”
Once the excitement of Wakadinali dies down, Vincent Ngugi soberly leads the auditorium into the three verses of our national Pokomo lullaby.
The first story was Hyvon Ngetich’s.
On 15 February 2015, Hyvon Ngetich was in the lead in the Austin Marathon when her body broke down 50 metres to the finish line. Medical personnel on standby rushed to her with a wheelchair which she declined. Ellah Maina performed a harrowing reenactment of the final moments of the race when Hyvon Ngetich crawled to the finish line and finished third. The race directors were so impressed with her grit that they doubled her prize money.
Without warning the lights dimmed and the auditorium found itself under siege by masked bandits, instructing everyone to stand up and empty their pockets of valuables. Here, the cast was reenacting the Mashreq Bank Robbery of 1999. The surreal scene, brought home by the hymns the thieves sang in unison, as they held the crowd at the bank hostage. Veteran actor and comedian, Bilal Wanjau, compels us, the audience, to sing along to the Swahili version of ‘Abide By Me’- which we do in part fear and part amusement.
Shortly thereafter, they laid the context for the story of one of Kenya’s most infamous crime families. The hint they gave us was that the name ends with an ‘A’ and has a ‘K’ in it. No, not that family, but the Akasha family. Amina Hussein played a very convincing Gavi Hyat, the grieving widow of drug-lord and Akasha family patriarch, Ibrahim Akasha, who witnessed as her husband was shot dead on Bloed Street in Amsterdam on 3 May 2000. You see the pain shoot through her face after the gunshots ring. You hear the tremor in her voice as she reminisces on a loving marriage, brought to its conclusion through the finality of a bullet.
Comic relief came in the form of Muchiiri Mike, inhabiting the role of Pastor Chris. A well-connected pastor who helps the Akasha family matriarch, Fatma Akasha, with her plea to the deep state to free her sons from incarceration and enforced disappearances.
Comedian, Esther Kazungu, plays the role of a bewildered Fatma Akasha coming to the state with her heart in her hands to assist her family. Famed actress, Marianne Nungo, took over the role of Fatma Akasha towards the end of the scene in a voice-breaking, gut-wrenching scene that appealed to the very essence of the audience’s tear ducts.
For the final act of the play, the standout stars were Xavier Ywaya and Matt Ngesa, the former playing legendary musician, George Mukabi, and the latter playing the singing voice of George Mukabi.
We witness George Mukabi’s life unfold before our very eyes, from the childhood where his interest in music first piqued, to his courtship with second wife Sengula, played by the indomitable Marianne Nungo, where the audience were voyeurs to a picnic romance and not-so-subtle insinuations to coitus.
“Sengula, I want to fertilize your eggs,” Mukabi cooed.
“But you know my eggs are kienyeji!” Sengula retorted, much to our amusement and raucous laughter.
The final scene of the play took such a dark turn that rather than show it to us, the cast instead used the medium of narration and song. The three narrators, played by Eunice Mwabe, Sandra Chadota, and Ellah Maina, recounted the final moments of George Mukabi as he assaulted his wife, Sengula, in her father’s home, and moments later in an act of vengeance and family duty, Sengula’s relatives chopped his body to pieces.
Singer/Songwriter Matt Ngesa, stole the auditorium’s heart with the final song, ‘Remember Me’ – a lasting plea to the audience, from George Mukabi, and the cast and crew, asking them to remember. Remember what they saw. Remember what they were told. Remember the stories.
Three hours after the show starts, it concludes with a standing ovation.
However, due to the ephemeral nature of our modern day attention spans, the number in the auditorium had dropped by half by the time the curtains were closing; partly due to the fact that the show was a little over three hours long with no interlude.
While most purveyors of the thespian arts are aware of the touch-and-go nature of opening night, Kenyans took to twitter in a flurry of mixed reactions ranging from pure love, to recoil at all the things that went wrong.
The crew of Too Early For Birds, having put their time, energy, money and everything they’ve got into the performance, took the negative comments to heart, as any dedicated artist would.
TOO EARLY FOR BIRDS OR TOO LATE FOR WORMS?
Too Early For Birds (TEFB), is a theatrical reenactment of the most riveting, scandalous and contextually impactful scenes taken from Kenyan history.
“We’d been doing stories for a long time as part of Story Zetu. Back in 2016, Ngartia was supposed to perform for Kwani? Open Mic at the (then) Phoenix Players Theatre, and he invited me and Abu to tell the stories with him,” said Brian Njagi, storyteller and co-founder of StoryZetu, the production house which stages TEFB.
“We performed the story of Muthoni Nyanjiru at Phoenix. From there the idea of doing something bigger came up. And the blog by Owaah, where we used to publish stories of Kenyan history as Story Zetu, so the idea of having these stories on stage came up.”
Beloved and enigmatic Kenyan-On-Twitter blogger, Owaah, is known for his anecdotal retellings of history that may have gotten lost in the sands of time, or never even made it into the cycle of mainstream news. Muthoni Nyanjiru is the famed Kikuyu activist known for protesting the arrest of Harry Thuku in 1922. She was among the first people shot and killed by the police during the protests.
Njagi, Ngartia and Abu saw they’d struck storytelling gold after their performance at Phoenix Players Theatre. That was when they decided to take their brainchild to a larger audience.
The first edition of Too Early For Birds was performed to an audience of less than 100 people at the Kenya National Theatre. The second edition, Too Early For Birds: BadAssery, featuring stories of Kenya’s most infamous and audacious crimes and criminals– some of which, may have been left out of the passages of Kenyan history such as that of famed gunman Anthony Ngugi Kaniga, alias Wacucu, and which served as a terror bedtime story for disobedient Kenyan children between 1993 and 1997.
The third edition, Too Early For Birds: Brazen, was a glimpse into the struggles of some of Kenya’s most impactful women throughout history such as Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima, a top-ranking active fighter in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army of the MauMau uprising, and who is still very much alive.
They planned for their fifth edition, Too Early For Birds: Beats, to be a stage musical retelling all our favourite non-fictional (his)stories. Then COVID happened and what everyone thought was going to be two- to three months of government mandated isolation turned into two years. The funds they had set aside for the Beats Edition had to be rerouted into sustaining the team.
Vaccines were manufactured, the pandemic was somewhat managed and in 2022, they made their comeback.
“We did Mboya in November 2019 and that show allowed us to start re-imagining the future for us as Too Early For Birds and seeing how we can screenboard ourselves to a whole new stratosphere all together. So we began 2020 very hyped up and excited about the new year. We even had an office, we hired staff to help us out, we even went on and booked the Visa Oshwal Hall for The Beats Edition, which was going to be a financially demanding show seeing that it is music end to end.”
“When COVID struck, all those dreams were kind of swiped all at once because whatever little money we had planned to use for Beats, we tried to sustain ourselves for the first few months to see whether we could maybe ride this wave hoping that if this thing ends soon enough, we could go back and stage Beats. 3-4 months down the line we realized this thing is here to stay. And of course, social distancing and no public gatherings meant we couldn’t stage a show.”
The easiest answer to point to as to why Too Early For Birds is so beloved by the Kenyan public- to the point that the 350-seater auditorium of the Kenya National Theatre became too small to hold the audience by the third edition- attests to that.
OUR STORIES ARE NOTHING MORE THAN OUR REFLECTIONS
It can be argued that the media consumed by Kenyans is not primarily Kenyan, unless a certain hype precedes it, such as the global promotion done for ‘Country Queen’, Kenya’s first homegrown Netflix series.
We mostly watch American, British, Nigerian, Tanzanian and South African content, leaving a void for local content. Millennials and Gen Z barely even own TVs, having long lost interest in local content; some contemporary Nairobi youth talk of experiencing a cultural disconnect from popular Kenyan shows that run on local TV networks.
Human beings want to see their own stories reflected back at them. That may explain the excitement Kenyans experience whenever a local production receives attention in mainstream Western media. That explains why Marvel Studios’ film ‘Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever’ generated Sh24.85 million ($203,583) at the Kenyan box office, a few days after it debuted in theatres.
It explains the national pride collectively experienced when Edi Gathegi was cast as the indestructible man in ‘X-Men’, when Mombasa was referenced in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’, when Lupita won the Oscar, and when we realized that the language of the Nien Nunb species of Star Trek aliens was in fact a bastardized derivative of Kikuyu and Kalenjin languages.
We love seeing reflections of ourselves, our stories as well as our histories mirrored back at us on the LED screens. TEFB have taken it a step further by eliminating the fourth wall of screens, and bringing our stories and histories to the audience, through the intimacy of the stage.
When asked why they chose the medium of stage, this is what Brian Njagi had to say-
“First of all, most of us came from a theatre background, mostly spoken word and poetry for Abu and Ngartia. Myself- I used to direct drama festivals back in high school, so it was a familiar space.”
“The second reason is the financial aspect of it. We didn’t have the resources required for a shoot, especially when trying to reenact historical scenes and getting them in an accurate space. It would have been too high of a demand on us.”
The generations that patronize Too Early For Birds comprise of individuals who passed through the 8-4-4 education system, long before the introduction of the revised CBC Curriculum. One could argue that the history taught in 8-4-4 textbooks may have been inadvertently relayed as cramming points, for students to memorize in order to pass exams. Not necessarily delving into the more interesting and convoluted stories of the past which make up the larger story of the current zeitgeist.
For those who were alive and paying attention when the stories reenacted in Too Early For Birds occurred in real time, the news items were so fluid we tended to forget one story as soon as the next one made headlines. A substantial amount of these stories are also on an ‘if-you-know-you-know’ basis, and sometimes never rise to the surface of our collective consciousness.
As we actively participate in the digital age: from the bygone era of DVDs and burning CDs, to storing films and TV shows in flash drives, to the comfort of current digital streaming platforms (with the occasional outing to the cinema whenever a big blockbuster like ‘Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever’ makes its debut) – one could say that theatre in Kenya is a dying medium.
We are far detached from the days of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘I Will Marry When I Want’ being staged at the Kamiriithu Open Air Theatre for ease and accessibility to all audiences, regardless of socio-economic status. The accessibility-to-all and the social commentary on themes of oppression by a draconian government, is what incited outrage in the Moi regime and led to the banning of the play and Ngugi’s subsequent exile. The government was outraged at having their stories told, in all their bureaucratic ugliness plain for all to see, by an audience who simply hunger for validation and affirmation that the injustices that have been, and currently are being committed, are indeed real and affecting all of us collectively.
The stories of our past will not all be recorded in our school set books. It’s important to ask, who will tell these stories when their main characters are unable to due to the cruel, silencing nature of time and memory?