February 8, 2014
Othello, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet….. All these are literary works that leave an impression of admiration in the minds of lovers of the stage. William Shakespeare was a great playwright of his time who is still celebrated the literary circles. On February 8, 2014, we had our Kenyan version of ‘Shakespeare’ take the stage. You probably remember him for his recent program JSO @7 on Kiss TV. The almost 60 year old John Sibi-Okumu wears many hats- he is a thespian, a veteran journalist and a playwright.
The topic at this past Saturday’s Creative’s Academy was considerations of writing for the stage. Who better to take us through this journey than this eloquent master of the stage? We had a riveting session with JSO, who chose to take the class on his own. This was unlike the previous sessions which have been handled by a panel of writers. He even said that the three hours were not enough to impart the wealth of knowledge.
He deliberately changed the topic from how to write a play, because one could easily Google that. What he gave us were ideas on how to come up with relevant plays for today’s Kenyan society- thought provoking plays that talk about the ills of today’s society. His love for the theatre could be seen in his energy during the lecture. It was an interactive, practical time with role plays, questions and answers on his profession.
|A role play during the creatives academy|
His career as a playwright came as a dare from the Phoenix Theatre actors. They were tired of doing plays that were not relevant to their current existence. He had then risen from a thespian to a director. He together with a number of the who’s who in the literary arena had enacted plays by famous writers like John Ruganda from the 1970’s. Ever since, he has an agreement with the Phoenix Theatres to write for them plays. His writing is largely influenced by his experiences growing up. He is privileged to have grown up with Kenyan history and the themes of tribalism, nationhood and even the liberation struggle feature in his plays. In October 2009 he directed the musical Mo Faya, shown at the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
He says one has to have a point of reference from which they tell their story. Everyone has a topic that is of relevance from which they draw inspiration. He draws inspiration from his experiences growing up and from the rich history over the decades. ‘The artist is the seer who sees the future and links it to the past’. He is currently working on a play titled Meetings, which joins the diversity of a Kenyan family brought together after separation from their father during the 1982 coup. The March 2013 elections unite them after being separated for years. His play brings the idea of Kenyan children born in the Diaspora, without the notion of ethnicity. He will release it in six months.
Kenyans are not keen on watching plays and it naturally goes without saying that the younger generation knows little about plays. The situation is different in countries like England. On any given night, there are at least a thousand plays showing at theatres in London. They also have well developed theatres that host hundreds of people.
The situation is different in our country with small theatres and a handful of plays that are written by Kenyans. Some of them are written in vernacular for a targeted audience. What’s worse is that the only experience that students have with plays is enacting other peoples’ plays during the drama festivals. These are plays that most often do not depict the Kenyan reality.
The ideal situation which JSO envisages is where there are fresh ideas being put down and enacted on the stage. In fact, his desire is that through this creative academy, plays may emerge. Consequently, he does not support the idea of writing plays that only exist in books. He concluded that we need to keep the momentum going by coming up with plays. To do so, we need to develop intellectual humility by reading the works of other writers. There is also need to develop a culture of going to theatres to watch plays in order to appreciate this literary genre. This is the generation that has to ensure the continuity of theatre.
It is getting better as the weeks go by at the Creative’s academy. More things are in store ever for the next ten Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 11.00 a.m. The sessions held at Daystar University’s Nairobi Campus- Allen Grove wing, are open to the public at 500 shillings for attendance only and 1000 shillings for a certificate per session. Come and kick start your career in creative writing.