- Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s Drama and the Kamĩrĩĩthũ Popular Theater Experiment
Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s Drama and the Kamĩrĩĩthũ Popular Theater Experiment is as much a study of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s drama and an exploration of the history of theater in Kenya as it is a demystification of the Kamĩrĩĩthũ popular theater. Based on solid field data gathered initially for a doctoral dissertation, this work is a pioneering study of Ngũgĩ’s drama as well as of his role in the development of indigenous theater in Kenya. True, there have been a number of journal articles, and even books, on Ngũgĩ’s drama, but these have focused mainly on the so-called Kamĩrĩĩthũ plays (I Will Marry When I Want, and Mother, Sing for Me); they have been more theoretical affirmations of Kamĩrĩĩthũ’s political intentions, and premature celebrations of its revolutionary potential, than interrogations of the complex relationship between Ngũgĩ’s dramatic texts and their performance contexts. In this book Gĩchingiri seeks to correct this limitation. He engages the whole corpus of Ngũgĩ’s drama, beginning with the early plays written during his student days in Makerere University in the 1960s, and he ends with a survey of Kenyan theater after Kamĩrĩĩthũ.
Yet this laudable gesture is occasionally frustrated by Gĩchingiri’s critical method, especially in the first two chapters, dealing with the Makerere plays and The Trials of Dedan Kimathi, respectively. Having alerted the reader to his dislike for “trendy terms and theoretical approaches,” Gĩchingiri presents his favored “hermeneutical” approach, which unfortunately yields little more than paraphrased discussions of the themes of messianism and pan-Africanism in Ngũgĩ’s early plays. Gĩchingiri’s reading of The Trials of Dedan Kimathi in the context of current critical discourses of nation formation is rigorous, but to a great extent it remains a rehearsal of the long debate on Ngũgĩ’s pet projects—like the reconstruction of Mau Mau historiography and the delegitimation of the neocolonial nation-state. The author justifies his recapitulation of these concerns on the grounds that, so far, recent scholarship on nation formation has focused much more on Ngũgĩ’s novels than on his drama. [End Page 224]
However, the most thorough and illuminating sections of this book are the chapters dealing with the Kamĩrĩĩthũ plays and the politics of the Kamĩrĩĩthũ popular theater project in general. Gĩchingiri employs a number of concepts from Augusto Boal, Paulo Freire, and Bertolt Brecht to read Kamĩrĩĩthũ as an experimental theater of learning and empowerment, whose potential cannot be accurately assessed because of its incompleteness. If Kamĩrĩĩthũ attracted world attention, the reason lay more in the confluence of Ngũgĩ’s participation (he was then already a world renowned writer) with the paranoid postcolonial regimes of Kenyatta and Moi—whose censorship of the plays and persecution of their authors ironically brought global recognition to what was otherwise a modest community literacy project. But was Kamĩrĩĩthũ really the product of popular participation of the workers and peasants, and were the plays the result of communal authorship, as has been claimed by some scholars, notably Ingrid Bjorkman and even Ngũgĩ himself? Gĩchingiri’s research disproves this and many other falsehoods and myths about Kamĩrĩĩthũ. He demonstrates convincingly that intellectuals like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Ngũgĩ wa Mirii exerted a high level of ideological influence on the rest of the theater group. The plays may have been based on the lives of the peasants and workers of Kamĩrĩĩthũ, but the social critique reflected in them point to Ngũgĩ’s Marxist agenda. This book will be of interest to readers and practitioners of African popular theater, as well as...