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A Day at the Nairobi Region Colleges Drama Festival 2023

A scene in the most recent rendition of Betrayal In The City by the Nairobi Performing Arts Society left me very nostalgic for drama festivals. In the scene, two prisoners Mosese Watonga and Jere Kaleka - Martin Kigondu and Mwaura Bilal respectively- performed a quasi-play in front of Boss- Raymond Ofula.

Nairobi Region Colleges Drama Festival 2023

The prisoners acted as a lieutenant and a captain arguing about the length of firearms to lull Boss and his guards into a false sense of security. To separate the play within a play from the broader narrative, Martin and Mwaura borrowed heavily from drama festival plays particularly in their intonation and gesturing.

The scene received a lot of praise particularly for its nostalgic elements as it was during high school drama festivals where most of us cultivated a love for theatre.

Promotional poster for Betrayal In The City

Saturday, March 11th was the second day of the Nairobi Region Colleges Drama Festival and this was the perfect opportunity for me to relive my nostalgia. The day’s theme was fostering digital transformation through theatre and film, a relevant topic as society rapidly approaches a point of inflection in our relationship with technology.

Stories Through Dance

There is power in dance, and the schools in attendance looked to harness that power through riveting performances of modern and cultural dances.

Utalii College’s modern dance told a great story of a young girl’s struggle between her personal ambitions and traditional gender roles. It culminated in a well-choreographed fight scene between the male and female leads who had amazing chemistry. I would have liked to see some of the scenes enjoy more time to breathe and connect with the audience.

They did give their cultural dance- Livundo- more time to breathe and it connected better with the audience. The dancers also felt freer lending a greater sense of energy into the performance and the incorporation of instruments and singing really elevated this performance.

Utalii would set the theme for the day as most modern dances would struggle to connect with the audience while the cultural ones received more acclaim.

Our hosts- the National Youth Service (NYS) - performed a multi-linguistic cultural dance called Vaida that electrified the crowd.

Clara from NYS practising for Vaida

The story- about a young girl called Vaida who joined the NYS to receive an education felt really personal to a lot of the dancers and you could see it in how much of themselves they gave to the performance. By the end, most of them were sweating buckets which washed off some of their carefully layered paint. They received one of the biggest standing ovations by virtue of their performance and having the home-ground advantage.

Personal Stories

A common thread throughout the day was how willing a lot of the performers were to draw from the wells of their personal lives, no matter how bitter the water, to entertain.

Robert Joto, stage name Prince Robert, from the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC) drew upon the tragic death of school mate Purity Wangechi for Anindo- one of the most emotionally evocative spoken word pieces of the day.

Prince Robert from KIMC

Speaking to me after the performance, it was clear how much this story meant to him, and how important it was for him to share it with the world. In the immortal words of George Eliot, our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.

While some of the audience wasn’t familiar with the narrative underpinning the performance, Prince’s tone, inflection and word choice drew them in and had them on the edge of their seats.

Ronny Murimi from the Railway Training Institute, drew on his own experience to pen the piece Social Media Set Us Free. Mastery of language and a commanding stage presence had the crowd eating from the palm of his hand from his very first pun that asked the crowd why they were addicted to alcohol, wines and spirits instead of focusing on the man who turned water into alcohol and was full of the Holy Spirit.

Shirley from the East African Institute of Certified Studies had a wonderful piece called Karibu Huku, however, some technical issues limited the impact of her performance.

Podcursed and Other Plays

When it came to the stage plays, KIMC and NYS stole the show.

Podcursed by KIMC explored the toxicity of influencer culture and the extent to which some people will go for fame. For Bella Mchokozi, a podcast host and influencer, the price of fame was steep.

She exploited Shitiri, later renamed Jobu- a talented, orphaned dancer from her village, killed her first husband and framed her friend’s lover accusing him of assault. Despite her antics, she swayed some in the crowd through her beauty and bubbly, inviting persona. A perfect mirror of how influencers often abuse parasocial relationships with their audience to launder their reputations. Barbara and Stacy, Bella’s friends and cohosts, also had star-making performances.

The Walking Dead by NYS was one of the most creative and daring performances of the day. I say daring because they gave you the twist at the start in a beautifully chaotic cacophony of voices without even introducing the cast and defining their relationships. This had me hooked as I could see the destination but I wasn’t sure how we’d get there or the true nature of my fellow travellers. Grace Wambui, playing the role of Melissa, a mother whose son gets taken advantage of in Nairobi, stole the show.

Aloice Asher- producer, scriptwriter and director of the NYS play- was very happy with how it turned out. He described the play as a reflection of how Kenyan society fails to provide jobs and opportunities to skilled individuals making them easy prey for those with malicious intent. The play also highlighted the weaknesses in modern database systems that are vulnerable to hacking and revealing people’s personal data.

Although happy with how the play turned out, Aloice mentioned that working with actors of widely varying skill levels proved to be challenging. Some were more experienced and comfortable performing in front of a crowd while for others it was their first time.

The future of theatre

Some of the performances at the Nairobi Region Colleges Drama Festival 2023 were spellbinding, some needed more work, and most fell somewhere in between. However, all the performances showed an unbridled passion for theatre, arts and culture, and that was beautiful to see.

Patel from NYS

The year is 2023 and the future of Kenyan theatre is in good hands.

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