BACKLASH, A BRILLIANT REMINDER AIDS IS A KILLER// BY margaretta wa gacheru. Published in Saturday Nation. Aug 17.13// Phoenix Players’ new General Manager David Opondoe was right when he observed there couldn’t be a better way to celebrate 30 years with Phoenix and 50 years with an independent Kenya than to stage a show scripted by one of the country’s leading playwrights Cajeton Boy.
Backlash is an enigmatic name of a play Cajeton wrote sometime back when the AIDS pandemic was major news and Muijiza Players were supporting young talents like him to write creatively about the problem. The intent was to generate public awareness and enlighten Kenyans as to the dire consequences of getting infected with AIDS. The beauty of Boy’s script is that he’s not heavy handed or preachy about the pandemic. On the contrary, AIDS isn’t even mentioned until the last few minutes of the play, but the context in which it’s revealed is stunning, even to us who have been familiar with the AIDS story for many years. On the surface of things, Backlash seems to be about a domineering mother in law (Victoria Githora) who’s a serious control freak. We quickly learn she not only controls her husband (David Opondoe) and the family company. She also intends to take complete charge of her son Toby (Nick Ndeda), his new wife Kesha (Fridah Muhindi) and their brand new baby boy whom the grandmother insists on naming Noel after her dead (and formerly favoured) son. Kesha also insists on naming her own child. It’s one of the few ways she can resist the mother in law’s mania for power. As the show opens, we already can see Kesha’s being put through hell by an in law who pays no heed to what other people want or think. Mother (as she insists on being called) has got her own agenda and Kesha is only of value as a baby making machine to provide the family with an heir. As the show opens, Kesha has just given birth but her new husband Toby is nowhere to be found. Nor is he on hand to take sides with his new wife against his mother who’s a major bully. ‘Mother’ is also one of the ugliest creatures that I’ve seen on the Nairobi stage in quite some time. But this is to the actor’s credit as she’s meant to be despicable. My only problem with Mother is that she lacks any sort of subtlety which makes her something of a cardboard caricature of the mother in law stereotype. Nonetheless, her domineering ways effectively intimate everyone, all except Kesha, who resists as best she can. Friday Muhindi gives a sensitive performance of Kesha as she refuses to accept being at Mother’s mercy. She’s fallen in love with Toby despite their getting hooked up on a ‘blind date’ and in spite of Mother insisting on examining whether Kesha is a virgin or not. Cajeton’s clever use of flashback scenes (directed well by Eugene Oyoo) enables us to discover key elements of the wider plot. They also serve to effectively unveil a slew of hidden motives, particularly the ones related to why Toby’s parents were so keen on their only son getting married and having a baby before the two were wed. We also learn there’s some sort of sick, twisted logic to the mad Mother’s reasoning. Her sinister schemes all boil down to a fixation for blood and for ensuring there’s an heir to carry on the family name. The plan of Toby’s parents is almost foiled however once they learn the bitter truth about their son, a truth I won’t relate. It leads to their threatening to disinherit Toby unless he follows through with their inhuman scheme which directly involves an unsuspecting Kesha. The fact that Toby goes along with his parents’ plot at the expense of his wife and brand new baby boy is the sort of low blow that Kesha can’t cope with once it’s revealed to her. Don’t worry. i won’t spoil your appreciation of Backlash by telling you how it ends. Suffice it to say, Cajeton intended for viewers to learn large lessons from his play. Phoenix’s professional cast make Backlash one of the most memorable shows that i have seen all year. It also clarifies how special Cajeton is as a seriously gifted playwright whose scripts deserve to be produced more consistently on the Kenyan stage. This weekend, don’t forget to make it to Alliance Francaise to see Hearts of Art’s premiere performance of Walter Sitati’s new play entitled “What is your Price?’ which most certainly has to do with corruption in Kenyan politics and family life as well. Also, at Kenya National Theatre, Festival of the Creative Arts has brought back the madcap comedy Birthday Suite this weekend.