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The Cultural Renaissance of East African Theatre and Performing Arts

The Cultural Renaissance of East African Theatre and Performing Arts

The Cultural Renaissance of East African Theatre and Performing Arts| Afrocritik

It is only recently that we’ve witnessed a renaissance in the region’s theatre and performing arts, due to the commendable efforts of artists confident in the performance art form and in their ability to positively influence it. By tapping into the aesthetic qualities of theatre and its artists, East African performance art is revitalised.

By Frank Njugi

A key aspect of a theatrical or performing arts experience is that the performer has the deftness to effectively illuminate a written or scripted work. The performer, here the virtuoso, is the true star who with a colossal gravitational pull, holds all in their orbit  — in this case, an audience. It takes profound skill for a performer to adeptly use their body, voice, language, or specific equipment as a form of aesthetic expression

In recent years, in famed and grandiose theatres, event venues, and arenas across the East African region, performing artists have with prowess, established this specialised form of fine art, Performing Arts,  as a component of the existing zeitgeist. 

Since the 2010s, there has been a new generation of artists in the region who are using performing arts as a tool for addressing important social issues such as poverty, unemployment, unequal opportunities, and tribalism, and to peer into the East African identity. 

In Kenya, the most famed of these proficient new-age artists come in the form of a theatre troupe known as Too Early for Birds. The troupe have since 2017 conceptualised and staged a series of high–selling Kenyan theatre shows that narrate diverse stories from Kenyan history. With a team made up of Wanjiku Mwawuganga, Anne Moraa, Gathoni Kimuyu, Zosi Kadzitu, Eddie Kagure, Brian Ogola, Tony Muchui, Morris Kiruga, Ian Arunga, Miriam Kadzitu, and Janet Haluwa, Too Early for Birds has staged shows across the country, including at the Storymoja Festival, Kenya National Museum, and the Visa Oshwal Community Center Auditorium.

Founded by renowned Kenyan oral literature narrator and storyteller, Bryan Ngartia, alongside the spoken word poet, Abu Sense, Too Early for Birds has used experimental theatrical storytelling —  incorporating other elements like reenactments and music  — to narrate some of the most outrageous crimes in Kenyan history, rewrite the erased stories of female figures from Kenyan History, and tell the tales of key Kenyan historical figures such as Tom Mboya

Ngartia Bryan as Arudhi in Too Early for Birds Badassery Edition WAKILISHA 1160x775 1 jpg
Ngartia Bryan as Arudhi in a Too Early for Birds production | Too Early for Birds

Alongside theatre groups, Kenyan spoken word artists have also been breathing new life into the country’s performing arts scene by constantly staging high-selling concept shows, and organising open mic events. These events showcase spoken word poetry as a form of performance art, as the spoken word artists draw on music, sound effects, dance, and other kinds of aesthetics to connect with the audience. Some of the spoken word artists who have become renowned for their performances include Dorphanage, who neglects the demarcation that persists between rap and poetry to narrate Kenya’s political history with his shows, and Lexas Mshairi, who through his collective, Rafinki, organises workshops and open mic events for up-and-coming spoken word artists.

Lexas mshairi spoken word perfoming artiste jpg
Lexas Mshairi, a spoken word performing artiste| Lexas Mshairi

Across Kenya’s western border, in Uganda, the pearl of Africa, theatre arts have been bolstered due to the endeavours of famed and prolific playwrights such as Phillip Luswata. Luswata has a background in the arts, having worked in top-rated film productions such as the 2005 Sometimes in April, 2016’s Queen of Katwe and Rain, and Mpeke Town (2018). He has become the foremost pugilistic champion of Uganda’s theatrical arts through his organisations such as Kampala–based, Playwrights’ Playhouse, with which he provides a venue for performing artists including actors, dance choreographers, music composers, and mixed arts performers to stage their shows. At Playwrights’ Playhouse, acclaimed plays such as Shame On Your Mind ( 2022) and 30 Years of Bananas ( 2019) have been staged.

Performing arts in East Africa have also been revitalised through festivals solely dedicated to showcasing performing artists. The latest of these East African festivals, the Rwanda Performing Arts Festival, was held in March 2024. Scheduled to coincide with the celebration of World Poetry Day, which is usually held on the 27th of March, and also World Theatre Day, it was organised by Rwanda Performing Arts Federation (RPAF) in partnership with the Rwandan Ministry of Youth and Arts, the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy (RCHA), and Rwanda National Commission for UNESCO (CNRU).

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A Rwandan performing troupe

During the festival, which was held in Huye District, in the southern province of Rwanda, twelve performing artists who engage in pursuits that span across various performance artistic disciplines were recognised with numerous awards that ranged from categories such as Theatre, Comedy, Poetry, and Modern Dance.

Another similar East African festival is the International Bagamoyo Arts Festival which is held in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. The festival has existed since 1982, and it is administered by the Bagamoyo College of Arts (TASUBA) as a 7-day annual festival. It is held in the TASUBA theatre, which is considered one of the largest in East Africa. The Bagamoyo Arts Festival has gained extraordinary popularity in recent years as it brings together yearly both regional and international performing and theatre artists, and also audiences and revellers from around the world. The 42nd edition took place from 26-28 October, 2023, and featured performances by dance, theatre and music performing artists.

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In Tanzania, performing arts have also existed in the drama–infused popular music genre of Taarab. Taarab musicians usually incorporate theatrical elements in their live performances, blending a rhythmic poetic delivery of their lyrics with storytelling.  Taarab live performances are social soirees that very few will willingly miss, especially in Zanzibar with the presence of groups such as Jahazi Modern Taarab, and the coastal part of Kenya, with groups such as Changamwe Stars.

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A Taarab musical performance

East African performing arts first gained ground in the 1970s, due to the endeavours of playwrights such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who wrote plays such as The Black Hermit (published in 1968 and staged at the Ugandan National Theatre in Kampala) and I Will Marry When I Want (published in 1977) which explored East African colonial history and political state, post-independence. In the succeeding years, participation in theatre and performing arts seemed to decline due to increased censorship from the powers that be — opposition from totalitarian and dictator regimes.

It is only recently that we’ve witnessed a renaissance in the region’s theatre and performing arts, due to the commendable efforts of artists confident in the performance art form and in their ability to positively influence it. By tapping into the aesthetic qualities of theatre and its artists, East African performance arts is revitalised.

Frank Njugi is a Kenyan Writer, Culture journalist and Critic who has written on the Kenyan and East African culture scene for platforms such as Debunk Media, Republic Journal, Sinema Focus, Culture Africa, Wakilisha Africa, The Moveee, Africa in Dialogue, Afrocritik and others. He tweets as @franknjugi.

Cover Photo: Too Early for Birds

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