Issue 12.3-13.1 | Summer 2014/Fall 2014 / Guest Edited by Kim F. Hall, Monica L. Miller, and Yvette Christiansë

“I Think Good Theater Just Translates”: Interview with Playwright Mũmbi Kaigwa

Actor, playwright, and producer Mũmbi Kaigwa began her career in the arts at age ten, when she appeared in Wole Soyinka’s The Strong Breed on Kenyan television. Since then, she has performed in countless productions, ranging from Eric Wainaina’s musical, Mo Faya, to Fernando Meirelle’s film, The Constant Gardener. She appeared in the first Kenyan production of for colored girls in 1987.

After leaving a job with the United Nations, Kaigwa founded the Theatre Company and later founded The Arts Canvas (Turubai za Fani), a production company committed to socially and politically engaged theatre. Since November 2011, Kaigwa has been celebrating forty years of her involvement in the arts, and The Arts Canvas has been producing her favorite works, including a production of for colored girls in the summer of 2013. The celebration will culminate in the production of They Call Me Wanjiku, the third of a trilogy of plays written by Kaigwa (the other two are Voices of a Dream and KigeziNdoto: A Hook for Dreams). This interview was conducted over Skype on October 15, 2013, shortly before Kaigwa began performing in Nyambura Waruingi’s production of Margaret Edson’s Wit in Nairobi.

Chris Cynn: In 1987, you starred in [your first production of for colored girls] and you just directed and starred in another one, in which your daughter also co-starred.

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Yes, that’s right. You’ve been doing your research. How did you know all this? Is it online?

Chris Cynn: Yes, mostly online. I’ve been reading, mostly articles.

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Okay, all right. It makes my neck stand on end because I’ve just been listening to the documentary about how Google tracks us and has all this information that we don’t even know that they’re keeping about us. [Laughter]

Chris Cynn: I know—it’s kind of terrifying.

Mũmbi Kaigwa: It’s fine. I love the fact that I can be reached and that I’m able to put the stuff that I’m doing up online because the theater—it’s so ephemeral. You can’t record it, and if you weren’t there, you weren’t there. So your email, out of the blue, was delicious and delightful because it meant that somehow I was out there.

Chris Cynn: And clips, actually, from the 2013 production were out there. I had a little taste of it from the CNBC and the ABN Digital piece on the production.[1]

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Yes, yes. It’s unfortunate that there was something wrong with that upload, so it’s not complete. But as you say, at least a little bit of it is up there. Also, the night that they came to do the interview, the lights in the theater had blown out, which is why it’s not very well lit.

Chris Cynn: Oh, that always happens with impeccable timing.

Mũmbi Kaigwa: It was our technical week and everything was going wrong.

Chris Cynn: What was happening in Kenya, or in the theater scene, that propelled the mounting of that 1987 production [of for colored girls]?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Yeah, well, I’m not really sure because I was just a young kid. I was in my early twenties, and I was working with a company called Tamaduni Players that was two women, both who’ve left the country now, but one is from the Gambia, her name is Janet Badjan-Young, and the other is Mũmbi wa Maina, who is an African American woman who is married to a professor here in Nairobi.[2] They used to do pretty much the most exciting work that I remember. Even then, they were doing very exciting work, feminist work and stuff that nobody else was doing, and it seemed a natural progression for them to do this piece. I’m not sure if they had any specific rationale behind producing it.

But I played lady in brown in the 1987 production, which was pretty much the first time it had been put on, and then got invited to do the show the following February, in 1988, at another theater. And I think, if I’m not wrong, we were the first all-black, all-female cast directed by a black person. On many levels, it pushed a lot of buttons.

The critics, who were all white at the time, the theater critics, they didn’t like it, and they didn’t hold back how much they didn’t like it, and I have—because I’m a bit of a squirrel in that way—I have copies of some of the press that came out after the show. They said people should come and see it, but they did say that people walked out of the show, and that it was too strong, possibly for the size of the space. It’s a little theater of 120 seats, and it was, I think, reading between the lines, I don’t think they liked it either. [Laughter] They found it too strident.

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Promotional material for for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, 1988.

Chris Cynn: Too strident. What did they think was too strong? Why do you think people were walking out?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: I think because here were seven women, pretty much pissed off about how men had seen them or treated them, and I think it was something that wasn’t very common. It wasn’t something that people were familiar with, that sort of outspoken woman who would say what she felt, and more specifically, speak about her sexuality so openly. Kenya has always been a very conservative society, and even though this is the capital, Nairobi, it’s still quite conservative. It was interesting to compare the audiences then and now, and [to see] how relevant material still is. It was almost sad, the things that women were saying about the show were that they found it so—what’s the word that so many people used?—so liberating to be able to hear themselves speaking.

A lot of women said that they felt as if it was they themselves who were telling the story, that it was so personal and particular to them, in terms of the way that they felt about how they had been treated. The theme of suicide seemed to be very close to a lot of people. I got a lot of—not a lot—but I got a significant number of people contacting me about their suicide attempt. There was one woman whose suicide, apparently, I stopped because she came to watch the show. So for me, as a producer, director, and performer, it was very moving.

Chris Cynn: That’s interesting that you were saying that you felt a kind of depressing relevance to the play, both in 1987 and in the contemporary moment, but that you did feel a difference in the audience response. Can you account for that? Why do you think in 2013 that there were some really intense responses, especially by women to the production, whereas in 1987, you said you felt like a kind of backlash by a white theater establishment and press?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Well, obviously, as a director I probably heard more about the 2013 production than I did about the 1987 and 1988 productions, since I was an actress, and not the producer or the director. But I did feel that in both cases. I was doing the show in 2013 as part of a retrospective that I’d been doing for the last almost two years of work that I’ve enjoyed, work that I wanted to share again. Having been in theater for many years, I felt that there was work that I particularly enjoyed, and there aren’t that many more strong performances for women, and this was a good one. So I wasn’t really thinking about its relevance, so much as I was thinking about doing something for myself. What was interesting among the people who then were in the cast, as well as those who were in the audience, was that there was those who weren’t familiar with the piece, and a lot of people are more familiar with it because of the film version by Tyler Perry, which I haven’t watched.

But there were people who knew of it because of that, not because of the work from before. And then, there were people who did know of the work from before. And then there were those who were complete blank slates and didn’t know Ntozake Shange, or her work, or this piece from before. I guess what was interesting to me was that even though it was written in the 1970s, women were still finding it very relevant. Because of the way I work—I tend to encourage audience response and discussion—I found it interesting that almost thirty years later, women were still feeling that they didn’t have a space in which they could speak out, and they felt as if they were not well treated.

Chris Cynn: The play seems to be so specifically centered in the United States. It evokes a very specific US, American, urban geography, and it seems very grounded in the 1970s in many ways, responding to a certain white, US feminism; the anti-Vietnam War movement; a Black Arts Movement, and it also seems to be affirming a kind of Africanicity that’s rooted in the diaspora. The United States, the Caribbean—Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti—are some of the other spaces that the play references. I’m wondering what kind of adaptations or translations did you feel were necessary for a specifically Kenyan audience?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Absolutely none. I did none. I sometimes do, with permission from the playwright. But I felt that this, the patois, the rhythm, the way that the piece was written, if I were to change it, we might have said things like “Hispanic,” instead of “spic,” for instance, but everything else we just kept exactly as it was.[3] We found the music exactly, and we played some of the music before the show, and some of the music inside the show, as per the script, and then some of the music after the show. Like you say, it is a very American play, very particular and specific to a particular era. Nairobi is the capital, but I would imagine that even if we took the show outside of Nairobi, it would still sit well, interestingly. I think the world has become so much smaller, in terms of what we think people will understand. Maybe because it is poetry, and the poetry, its poetics, the rhythm of the show—it’s not so much about what the language is, it’s about the rhythm and the dance and the movement, and I think that that Kenyan audiences could appreciate that because as Africans, we are a lot more physical on stage than possibly, I don’t know, Czechoslovakians might be. [Laughter]

Our theater tends to be a lot more physical, a lot more languid and sensual—there’s a lot of movement, anyway. There were people who said they didn’t understand, of course. There were people who got it just on a spiritual level. I think that’s the thing about great theater. I’ve done Ibsen for audiences in Nairobi, and they got it. So I don’t know, I think good theater just translates.

Chris Cynn: You said that some people, or more people were familiar with Shange because of the Tyler Perry movie?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Yeah, unfortunately. I mean, I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard things about it that made me clear in my mind that I’m not going to see it.

Chris Cynn: Yeah, I think they made some pretty significant revisions to the play.

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Unfortunately. Like writing new characters into the script—I didn’t understand what that was for. One of the things that I really, really didn’t like was that people would say: “Which one is the prostitute and which one was the…?” They would label the women, and yet, I don’t feel in my direction of it, or even in my performing of it in 1987, that there is any distinct feeling of a particular label that can be given to any of the women. So I got a bit upset that people thought that they could identify certain types of women because then it, for me, goes completely in the opposite direction of what it is I think Ms. Shange was trying to do.

Chris Cynn: How did you read that imagery of the rainbow in for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf? The women are costumed in different colors. You said you didn’t want them to be stereotyped into characteristics or types. But then, the color imagery is so vivid. How did you read the colors?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: A rainbow is one thing. But it’s made of many different things, and the one is just as beautiful as the singular parts of it, and so, as women, we are all different, but we are all one.

Chris Cynn: Is [your writing] influenced by Shange’s work either directly or indirectly? Or are other Kenyan writers, playwrights who you might know who are influenced by her and her work?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: I think that my work has been influenced by everything that I’ve done. If it is a trilogy, then the first play is called Voice of the Dream. I used to work for the United Nations, and I had always been an actress since I was ten, so I didn’t know that it was a job that I could do. When I came out of the United Nations, I sort of stumbled into becoming a performer and a producer and a director and an owner of a theater company, quite by chance … I was being interviewed on television one day—this is around 2001—and somebody asked how I did it because they wanted to know what the secret was for leaving a well paying job and following a dream.

And I said, “I have no idea.” So I kept being asked this question and a friend of mine, with whom I danced, I mentioned it to her and she said, “well, if you don’t know how it is that you did it, or how it is that it’s done, you should ask people.” So my first play was actually a piece of documentary theater, which I thought I’d invented.[4] And so, if I would be anything, I would be trying to tell as personal stories as I can, so that they reach people directly in their hearts, and I think that is one of the things that I find Ms. Shange’s work does for me.

But it’s very, very moving. That story in the end, about the lady in brown and crystal, was shattering. We had people in tears every single night because that story is so personal.

Chris Cynn: Were you consciously trying to effect transformations in the audience as well?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Always, always, absolutely always. It’s pretty much the only reason why I do what I do. I didn’t realize how powerful my work was until people would start coming up to me and saying—twelve years after I did Death and the Maiden—that their life changed on that night, and they’ve never been the same.[5]

The woman who I spoke about earlier, who said that she was about to kill herself, she saw the advert for the play on Facebook, and we spoke, as one does online. I still haven’t met her. So we communicated online, chatting for maybe six hours. And I said that she should come see the play before she did anything else and she came as my guest to watch the show. I didn’t manage to see her, but I knew she was there, and she wrote me to say that she had been transformed. So it’s a scary situation to be in, to be someone who has that kind of gift—that I appreciate that I must have been given it for a reason.

Chris Cynn: The play is so much about gender too, and relations between men and women. I’m wondering whether you were also hoping to change mindsets around gendering. The play is also about race, too, in the US context. I’m wondering what kinds of changes you were hoping to effect in the Kenyan context around gender, and possibly around race as well?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: I’m not sure that I know. I know that I’m drawn to material that has strong social justice contexts, and so, I’ve done stuff on human rights, but also on drug abuse and human torture, and I’ve done a production of The Vagina Monologues almost every year for ten years. I did the first one.[6]

But I’m pretty much—I’m not sure that I could say to you what it is I intend because it comes out of the material, and unfortunately, I don’t write as much as I feel I could or should. But very often, it’s difficult to find material that will say the kinds of things that need saying, particularly right now. Politically in Kenya, we’re at a bit of a crossroads with our president and our vice president, our deputy president, before the ICC, the International Criminal Court, and so that’s generally affecting us in many, many, many different unknown and complicated ways as a nation.[7] But I think that my interest is not so much gender, as it seems to be women, but just human relations and the human condition and the way that we relate to one another as men and women, as black and white, as tribes, as human beings.

Having said that, it’s tough to be a performer in this part of the world because people don’t come out to watch stuff, and you’re often preaching to the choir, and your audiences are small.

Like I said, the theater that I was performing in most recently—the theater that we were performing for colored girls in, for instance—only had 120 seats, and while we had sold out performances for that particular production, other productions don’t do so well. Our biggest auditorium in Nairobi has maybe 600 seats. We are never really reaching the masses because we also don’t run for very long. Phoenix Theatre has 11 nights, and they run the longest in Nairobi. Everybody else runs for four nights, or two. A play is even just one night. So you are often forced to try and find different audiences.

I love to tour the work. I performed, for instance, in three different venues. We did 11 shows, actually 12—we added an extra one because we were selling out at Phoenix and then we did one show each in two other parts of town. But we are not reaching that many people.

Chris Cynn: Even here in the US, the arts are feeling the pinch economically, and you had mentioned the national political scene there, the ongoing turmoil. I’m wondering what sort of future you see for the arts, for theater in particular, for the kind of political social justice work that you’re so invested in?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: I’m not encouraged. I’m not encouraged at all. It’s unfortunate because there is a lot of space to do a lot. But you can’t pay the bills on tickets and there’s very little, in fact there’s absolutely no government support—we don’t have arts councils. The people who were supporting our work—everybody goes to the same small pool of international nongovernmental organizations, and in my mind it’s getting less and less possible to do this sort of work. I would love to be able to do a three-year project or even a two-year project where we’re writing and devising and creating and producing, and then be taking the show on the road, around East Africa. But I’m still sort of working pretty much in the same way that I started working twelve years ago when I left the U.N. In between, there was some light towards East Africa. I did a three-year project where I trained young actors to devise work. But it doesn’t build on itself necessarily.

There doesn’t seem to be that many people to whom I can pass the baton. I’m 51 and there aren’t that many. I may be wrong. I would love for somebody to show up and say, “No, no, no! Here I am, standing here! I want to do it!”

With the filmmakers and the musicians, I feel that there’s a lot more, you see a lot more development over the ten years. But with the theater, I feel as if we’re really faced with a losing battle because we don’t have music and theater studies within our schools. By the time you get to university, you’re pretty much wanting to get a proper job, a job that will pay the money. And so, there isn’t a groundswell of people whose shirttails you can grab onto and say: Hoist me up and show me how it’s done, how I can make a living. People come into theater out of school, very enthusiastic. But as soon as they start having families or more responsibilities, they drop out. I’m kind of the only fool who is still here, who went into the employment and then came out, and it’s still pretty much not the norm.

But it’s been great, and what I’ve tried to do is combine that with things that were issue-based, HIV or conflict resolution work for organizations such as the United Nations. That then paid the bills so that I can then do the more interesting, meaty, grassroots work that I want to do.

But like I said before, and like you know I’m sure as well, the funding isn’t always there. And when it is only for a little project, you’ve got to stretch it over two years, when it was really supposed to be for six months.

Chris Cynn: Do those NGOs and the grant organizations dictate what productions, or influence what productions you decide to put on?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Yeah, they wouldn’t necessarily be interested in something like Ntozake Shange’s work. But they might be interested in the method that was used or the style of the work to create something that was more local. Also sometimes, they insist on you partnering with people who … I recently did a project that was in jeopardy of not happening because I was supposed to work with a particular institution within the government that just was so bureaucratic and so painfully slow at moving, that we needed to do the project before the elections, and in the end, we almost didn’t make it. We had eight months to get there and it was just like pulling teeth. So sometimes that kind of thing, where the organization that’s giving you the grant insists that you do it in a particular way, or they want your support but not for the kind of work that you’re interested in doing. Like I’m not necessarily interested in doing shows that teach people how to dig boreholes, but maybe there’s an organization that wants to do plays that teach people how to dig boreholes. So we don’t connect. [Laughter]

Chris Cynn: Is there anything else that you would want to add in relation to Shange, your own work, the theater more generally, that I haven’t asked you but that you would want to include?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: One of the things that I really enjoyed doing, some years ago—we had a group of people, we were 11 of us from East Africa, and we came to the US with performances of our own as well as techniques to teach. We went to Dartmouth in New Hampshire. We worked with some of the kids there, and that was one of the highlights of my life because they were just so bright-eyed and so enthusiastic and so interested in the work that we were sharing with them. We sang and we did workshops and whatever it is that we did, and then we had a few days where we then performed the pieces that we had come with.

I think the tour was also very interesting because we then went to New York and spent a week talking to different playwrights and different practitioners. We met many of the people who were writers in contemporary work, and heard about their process and how they put pieces together, whether as writers or as directors. Then, we went to CUNY and we performed there as well.[8]

I think those sorts of tours are very useful, not only for ourselves as East Africans or as individual performers. But also, it’s very, very useful for the people who see our work because it gives them a whole different perspective of what African theater is about. Also, it negates a lot of the damage that’s been done by the media about what Africa is. And also, out of that there was hope that there would be collaborative work that would come out of that, so that we could then come and work in either universities or with those people we met on works that could grow the work of the people who we were engaging with. I think that those exchanges are very useful.

Chris Cynn: You mentioned before that you had not altered the text of for colored girls at all, in your production. But I’m very interested in what you were saying about a specifically African theater.

And I’m wondering what about your production, just in closing, what do you think was specifically African or specifically Kenyan [about your] for colored girls? You mentioned the music and the dance. But if there were other aspects …

Mũmbi Kaigwa: I know that there were African American women who came and watched the show. It’s difficult for me to say how much of it was African, but if I recall, as far as they were concerned, it was not the show that they would have expected to see in an American context. But I can’t tell you what it was that we did in the show because it would mean [that we are] ourselves thinking that we’re being American and maybe we’re not at all.

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for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf poster.

Chris Cynn: Yes, it would be very difficult for an American director to define exactly what’s American about their production as well, so that was kind of an off-the-cuff question in response to your interesting comment about an African theater and what audiences on this side can learn.

Mũmbi Kaigwa: I know that in terms of the audience, from the night that the African Americans were in the audience, we all knew they were there because they answered back. [Laughter] It was very call-and-response, and they were very engaged, which is something that happens with our theater when it’s not in a theater, when it’s out on the street or when it’s in a more informal setting. But I think that the African Americans—and I’m generalizing broadly here—they know that they can take the space and break those boundaries that say that we have to sit quietly in the seats.

Kenyan audiences tend to be very English because they were the ones who introduced us to theater, and so we sit meekly and talk afterwards about how I really wanted to laugh, but I wasn’t sure, was it okay, is it okay to laugh out loud? That’s the kind of thing that we see clearly from a Kenyan audience, whereas the African American was just answering us back.

Chris Cynn: There’s also maybe something about for colored girls that invites that kind of response as well.

Mũmbi Kaigwa: Yeah. Yeah, we thought we would get a lot more of it. I think we had, out of the 14 shows that we did, we probably only had that response twice or three times.

Chris Cynn: What are some of your plans for the future?

Mũmbi Kaigwa: I have two more plays in my retrospective, the next one was going to be five plays from the Humana festival, which we’ve done before and went down very well. The next big one will be They Call Me Wanjinko.

Chris Cynn: Best of luck with the future projects. I so appreciate the chance to talk with you. Take care of yourself.

Mũmbi Kaigwa: You too.

Chris Cynn: Thank you.

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Footnotes
  1. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EATlezrpH8. [Return to text]
  2. Tamaduni Players was a populist, political theatre company that emerged as part of an alternative to the Kenya National Theatre and that sought to broaden and engage theatre audiences. Janet Badjan-Young is a a playwright, director, and one of the founders of the Tamaduni Players, and has also worked for the United Nations in various administrative capacities. She directed the 1987-1988 Nairobi production of for colored girls. Mũmbi wa Maina was one of the stars of the 1987-88 Nairobi production. Her husband is Mau Mau historian and political activist Maina wa Kinyatti. [Return to text]
  3. This language appears in the original version of for colored girls. [Return to text]
  4. According to Carol Martin’s definition: “Contemporary documentary theatre represents a struggle to shape and remember the most transitory history—the complex ways in which men and women think about the events that shape the landscapes of their lives …. Those who make documentary theatre interrogate specific events, systems of belief, and political affiliations precisely through the creation of their own versions of events, beliefs, and politics …. [I]t is a form of theatre in which technology is a primary factor in the transmission of knowledge.” See Carol Martin, “Bodies of Evidence,” TDR 50. 3 (2006): 8.) I found out about Anna Deavere Smith after I had written it, and then researched her style and her method to sort of create a style. I think that what I found in Anna Deavere Smith’s work, and also in Ntozake Shange’s work, is that the more personal—I’m sure I’m not the first one to have discovered this—the more personal the story is, the more universal. ((Anna Deveare Smith’s best-known documentary-theater-style work includes Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights Brooklyn and Other Identities (which incorporated an interview with Shange) (1992, 1993) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1993, 1994). [Return to text]
  5. In November 2011, Kaigwa directed and starred in a Phoenix Theatre production of Death and the Maiden, a 1990 play by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman. [Return to text]
  6. Kaigwa produced the first performance of The Vagina Monologues in Kenya in 2003 and in Uganda in 2005. Based on interviews with over 200 women, Eve Ensler’s one-woman play, The Vagina Monologues, first published in 1998, is now performed annually at “V-Days” worldwide to raise awareness about violence against women. The Vagina Monologues has provoked intense controversy. For a critique of “V-Days” and the global feminist politics it purports to propagate, see Srimati Basu, “V Is For Veil, V Is For Ventriloquism,” Frontiers: A Journal Of Women Studies 31.1 (2010): 31-62. For an account of a South African production that reimagines the play, see Roxanne Bain, “Vagina Dentata—A Kabarett: Re-imagining The Vagina Monologues,” South African Theatre Journal 26.1 (2012): 45-60. For feminist critiques of the play from US perspectives, see Christine M. Cooper, “Worrying About Vaginas: Feminism And Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues,” Signs: Journal Of Women In Culture & Society 32.3 (2007): 727-758 and Kim Q. Hall, “Queerness, Disability, And The Vagina Monologues,” Hypatia 20.1 (2005): 99-119. For discussions of “V-Day” as a campus phenomenon, see Durden and Cobrin in this issue. [Return to text]
  7. President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto face ICC charges of ethnic cleansing related to violence after the contested 2007 elections that left at least 1,200 dead. Joshua Sang, head of operations of KASS FM Radio, also faces charges of ethnic cleansing, and journalist Walter Osapiri Barasa faces charges of attempting to corrupt witnesses. See http://www.icc-cpi.int/en_menus/icc/press%20and%20media/press%20releases/Pages/pr958.aspx and http://www.icc-cpi.int/en_menus/icc/press%20and%20media/press%20releases/Pages/pr948.aspx. Echoing a number of other scholars, Marcel Rutten and Sam Owuor challenge media accounts that frame the post-election violence as ethnic conflict. See Marcel Rutten and Sam Owuor, “Weapons of Mass Destruction: Land, Ethnicity and the 2007 Elections In Kenya,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 27.3 (2009): 305-324. For an account of post-election violence targeting women, see http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Press/OHCHRKenyareport.pdf (PDF). [Return to text]
  8. For a journalistic account of the trip, see Randy Gener, “East Africa Remakes The World,” American Theatre 25.9 (2008): 28-89. [Return to text]