‘Borrowed Life’ script by Seth Busolo shows pain and passion for financial fraud

Greed and blind obsession the dominant themes in new play

 

Juma (Timothy Ndiisi) and Jessica (Manda Khabetsa) on set in Seth Busolo’s play ‘‘Borrowed Life.’’ Photo/MARGARETTA WA GACHERU

 Cornelius (Justin Karunguru) the comedic con man on stage in Seth Busolo’s play ‘‘Borrowed Life.’’ 
 Photo/MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 
By Margaretta wa Gacheru

Posted  Thursday, April 17  2014 at  18:13

In Summary
  • Borrowed Life is a play that originally offered a sensitive portrait of a troubled woman (the likes of whom also dwell in our midst) so plagued with insecurity and need to compensate with cash and all the status symbols money can buy that she is prepared to risk her family, including a new born child.

Watching the remake of a brilliant and thought-provoking play can be like watching the sequel to a blockbuster movie.

The plots may be similar but the follow up is rarely as mind-boggling or stunning as the first time round.
This is what happened with Seth Busolo’s Borrowed Life that premiered last month at the Michael Joseph Centre and got restaged last weekend at the Alliance Francaise due to popular demand.
It revolves around one woman’s greed, naked ambition and blind obsession to get rich quickly using other people’s money, having devised her own mini pyramid scheme.
But there was a fundamental shift in the story the second time round largely due to the feedback that Wholesome Entertainment Productions (meaning the playwright Seth Busolo and the play’s producer Daisy Busolo) sought during their show’s first run.
Some members in the first audiences found the play “too serious” and “not funny enough”. They wanted a few more laughs and less dramatic indepth probing into the motivation and the methods of how a seemingly successful woman like Melissa (Manda Khabetsa) could go from being a loving wife and popular broadcast journalist to a crooked con artist who ultimately gets caught running a racket comparable to a Bernie Madoff-styled pyramid scheme.
When Melissa finally gets caught, she’s in debt to the tune of Sh40 million. Her soft-hearted, long-suffering husband Adam (Brian Ogola), who has been through a scam similar to this one with his wife once before, doesn’t have the cash to pay her bail so the play ends with the very pregnant Melissa left to give birth to their first baby while still in  jail.
These are sobering notions but with a cast as competent as Wholesome’s, the play was not only conceivable and credible, it also mirrored a social reality that operates both in Kenya as well as elsewhere globally.
What was unfortunate about the staging the second time was that the Busolos took seriously the feedback that called for more laughs and escapist entertainment and less serious social realism.
The first production of Borrowed Life had a fair amount of ingenious comic relief in the shape of Cornelius (Justin Karunguru), the jua kali mechanic and small scale con man who devised his own set of tricks to get rich quick, and then show off his spoils —shiny new status symbols like a big, brand new car and a full set of pricey golf clubs.
The other sleazy but amusing character in a schizophrenic sort of way is Mr Juma (Timothy Ndiisi), the sinister shylock whose mafia-like tendencies are thinly cloaked by his humorous edge and apparent good will.
But where we saw the biggest shift between the first and second version of the play is in the Busolo’s rewriting of the script to give more air time to the light hearted banter between Cornelius the con and Juma the shrewd lethal crook who not only deceives naive teenage girls like Melissa’s 19-year-old niece Jessica (Joyce Maina), but Juma is also renowned for eliminating debtors who don’t pay up in good time.
By adding more levity to a serious dramatic script aimed at highlighting the problematic nature of greed and Melissa’s penchant for plotting what she thought were clever pyramid schemes, Busolo falls prey to almost losing the critical essence of his play.
Borrowed Life at its core isn’t an escapist production. It’s a play that originally offered a sensitive portrait of a troubled woman (the likes of whom also dwell in our midst) so plagued with insecurity and need to compensate with cash and all the status symbols money can buy that she is prepared to risk her family, including a new born child.
By swapping that dramatic core for laughs, Busolo sacrifices one of the most interesting elements of the play, Melissa’s psychological descent from simply stealing funds from her chama to building a whole business based on fraudulent investing in the foreign exchange market.
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