Oral narratives are something that I associate with the Kenya National Schools and Colleges drama festivals- a negative association. Negative because in KNSC drama fests, it lacks originality, both in terms of content and performance styles. If you ever watch three, you have seen all. The way the narrators ALL speak in a funny singsong style, to the content where they tend to compete in trying to find out sexual innuendoes on everything from fishing, to travelling on the road, to navigating River Nyando to writing with a pen, it’s like a KFC fast food factory only that its stories this time, not chicken.
So I was apprehensive when I was invited to attend a performance at the Alliance Francais, which I was told was a humourous ’oral narrative.’ I must admit the main reason for going to the 3PM show on August 20th was to find out who were these Kiqwetu Production guys with such guts as to stage an oral narrative to a paying public. Titled ’Lukendo Mcity’ (The Journey to the City), it took less than five minutes for me to realize that this was something different, something original, something we need to see more of. Simply because of the great mix of a good story, an original performance style, and great actors. No wonder it was full house at the theatre.
Written by Job Masika, the narrative is about Wafubwa, a villager from Luhya land who sets out to be the second person to ever travel to Nairobi City from his village. John Paul Wafula plays this hilarious character, whose first ever long distance journey constantly explodes into comic episodes, though it earns him the title of the hero of the village and even manages to bed the most beautiful girl in the village Nafula (played by Lucy Njoki) in the process. If 24 is a TV drama that takes place in only 24 hours and yet gives you enough thrills to last you three lifetimes, Lukendo Mcity is a story about a 9-hour journey to Nairobi with enough laughs to fill you every second of its two hour show.
MC’d by the TV comedian Mshama, It’s a mixture of narrative anchored by the two story tellers, Pax Washika and Job Masika who bumble in telling the story reminding one of Thompson and Thomson in the TinTin Series. It weaves in beautiful music in well-choreographed sequences that show Elisha Otieno took time to choreograph his musician-dancers. Add in the melodious voices led by the leady vocalist Wabi Ng’ang’a and the versatility of the team in singing traditional luhya dances, to the Luo dances, and even classical English songs, and the powerful story is elevated further. The ’orchestra’ which had to do with the stairs rather than an orchestral pit (was it coz they were few or was it because Alliance doesn’t have space?) was up to task with their job. Dramatized scenes full of rib-crackling humor like the Driver-Conductor duo of Isaac Mwaura and Jeffrey Juma, and you understand why the audience kept laughing it made the actors have trouble moving to the next plotline as they waited for the laughter to subside. The whole piece was proof that the director, Douglas Malala weaved in every segment of the production into a tight unit, and it paid off.
Why all this name dropping? Because despite a few issues (like the police segment not really adding value to the story, and lapses e.g. a bus that had an accident in Kericho still goes on to Nairobi, and the story ending too abruptly when the bus reaches Kangemi, something the audiences almost rioted about despite Mshamba’s explanation that the Kangemi-City Centre part is stuff for the sequel) this production was proof of the power of the actor. A good story can be crashed by poor acting. But a good story can be made superb by a regular actor who puts his all into it and delivers a great performance. To me the people who carried the day were the actors, the dancer/singers, and the instrumentalists. I include the narrators into the actor category because that is what they were: captivating actors. While Douglas Malala the director deserves platitudes as a director who brought such a wide array of talent together in a harmonious unit, he deserves more platitudes for managing such immense talent in his actors, making them realize to be funny they didn’t have to act funny, and thus enabling them to compliment each other and indeed compliment the good storyline.
Maybe this type of narrative storytelling can be harnessed into the audio visual sector by our film and TV brothers. Why not? There is no difference in the eclectic narrative structure of ’Forrest Gump’ with the narrative structure of Lukenda Mcity. No difference in Tom Hank’s naïve storytelling of his tribulations with John Wafula’s rendition of Wafubwa. These narrative structures also remind me of ’Zelig’ by Woody Allen. Closer home, we have seen how ’Ndoto za Elibidi’ resonated well with audiences and critics alike due to its weaving of oral narrative and cinematic visual expose, bagging several awards continentally. Proof that we as yet haven’t mined the many alternative narrative structures that exist in Africa to present fresh ways of telling our stories, no matter the medium.
Written by Simiyu Barasa