MUMBI CELEBRATES 40THYEARS IN KENYAN THEATRE
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
February 23, 2012 Story appeared in Business Daily, Nairobi
Forty years ago, Mumbi Kaigwa’s fate was sealed.
Just ten years old, she had been called by her uncle Jagi Gakunju to come before the KBC-TV cameras to play the little girl in Wole Soyinka’s The Strong Breed.
The show was watched by tens of thousands of Kenyans who tuned into prime time TV. Best of all, Mumbi got paid cash, qualifying her to be called a “professional actor”!
Fast forward forty years and find the same professional actor on stage live at Alliance Francaise this weekend in the one-woman production called Talking Heads, which actually opened this past Wednesday night.
“The whole year I’m celebrating my fiftieth birthday and fortieth anniversary as a paid professional actor with a series of shows running throughout 2012,” said Mumbi who currently plays two separate characters in two short (Kenyanised) plays by the British playwright Alan Bennett.
In The Big Chance, she plays Lesley, a less-than-professional B-grade actress who has an over-inflated sense of herself. Basically embarrassing as a pseudo-starlet, Lesley gets herself in hot soup when she blindly believes she’s been call for casting in a film, oblivious of the fact that it’s only her body which is sought.
In Bed Among the Lentils, Kaigwa flips over into a completely different character, the dowdy wife of a church vicar. Susan has been bored stiff for years being an accessory to Geoffrey, a so-called ‘man of God’ who is adored by his parishioners, but who she believes is basically a Pharisaical hypocrite!
Covertly consuming the communion wine chased with Sherry from the local Asian shopkeeper Ramesh Ramesh, Susan becomes an alcoholic. But the booze only sharpens her skepticism and self-reflective monologue which is seasoned with hilarious stories about the Christian hypocrites.
Susan’s path back to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous is a stunning one which I won’t divulge as I don’t want to spoil the experience for others. But Susan is full of surprises, charm and crafty wit. And when the production is done, you will know why the title, Bed Among the Lentils is so apt.
But Talking Heads is only one of the Fortieth Anniversary series that started late last year when her production company, The Arts Canvas, staged Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden at the Phoenix Theatre.
Kaigwa directed and co-starred with her brother Gakunju Kaigwa (who is better known as a master sculptor based at Kuona Trust) and maqbul mohamed, in a spine-tingling thriller based on the Chilean experience of torture, rape and impunity during the vicious dictatorship of General Pinochet.
First staged in 1998 when the psychiatrist who’d approved Pinochet’s malicious treatment (including rape) of Mumbi’s character were played by John Sibi-Okumu, Death and the Maiden was sponsored in its 2011 incarnation by the Kenya Human Rights Commission, who clearly found the message of the play meaningful. For ‘the Maiden’ can’t forget the past impunity. She insists her offender be called to account and that justice be done, a message many Kenyans can identify with, according to KHRC and Mumbi.
In May, Mumbi plans to re-stage another show that went down well with Nairobians when it was first performed in the 1980s. For Colored Girls who Consider Suicide when the Rainbow is Not Enough, by the African American playwright Ntozake Shange, will showcase a slew of amazing Kenyan actresses at Alliance Francaise, including Mumbi who also directs.
In October, she will stage another one-woman show, Wit, by the American playwright Margaret Epsom, about a woman coping with cancer and putting up a valiant fight for her life.
Mumbi will extend the fortieth celebration into 2013 when she stages her last production to coincide with her birthday bash on April 20th. They Call Me Wanjiku is the third in the trilogy of plays which she’s written and the one which traces the transformation of Louise, a former archivist at the United Nations offices in Gigiri into an indigenized Kenyan freedom fighter named Wanjiku.
Both stage directing and scriptwriting came after Mumbi launched The Theatre Company in 2000 and organized a Festival of Short Plays called Fire by Ten.
“We couldn’t find enough Kenyan scripts to perform, so I decided to write one. That is how Voice of a Dream came into being,” said Mumbi, speaking about the first of the three semi-autobiographical scripts that form the trilogy.
The second, KigeziNdoto, has successfully toured Europe (2006) and East Africa (2009), and Wanjiku has been staged at several venues in the States.
So Mumbi’s showcase of genius will be a celebration of not only her forty years as a professional actor who has also performed in films (like The Constant Gardener) and TV sit-coms (like Neighbours) as well as in plays, but of Kenyan theatre as well.