Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Ngũgĩ wa Mirii’s controversial banned play I Will Marry When I Want (Ngaahika Ndeenda in Gikuyu where it was originally written). recently after 32 years on the Kenyan stage.
Shortly after the popular play premiered in 1977, it was banned by President Jomo Kenyatta’s government.
The two Ngũgĩs were arrested a year and was only released in December 1978 by Daniel arap Moi, who succeeded Kenyatta after his death in August of the same year.
After his release, Wa Thiong’o was not allowed to get back his position as a teacher at the University of Nairobi and continued to be harassed. Both playwrights were eventually forced into exile.
It’s most likely a coincidence, but with Ngaahika Ndeenda returning to Kenyan theatre, President Uhuru Kenyatta could well claim that he did it paid for his father’s sins 45 years ago.
The play is a harsh critique of political corruption, greed, religious hypocrisy and elitist collaboration with imperialists. It is also a thinly veiled call for mass uprising.
It is remarkable how little has changed in the evils the Ngũgĩs wrote about in 1977. In fact, things have gotten worse in almost every way, especially when you look at Africa as a whole.
And what’s even more striking is that both Kenya and other parts of East Africa play like I Will Marry When I Want are extremely rare these days.
In Uganda in 1977 the playwright Byron Kawadwa was assassinated by the Idi Amin regime over the play Oluyimba lwa Wankoko (The Song of Mr Cock).
Far more subtly than Ngũgĩ, it tells of an ambitious politician’s attempt to overthrow the rightful heir to the throne.
True are badass books, and writers like Stella Nyanzi and Kakwenza Rukirabashaija of Uganda have paid dearly for their problems of torture, imprisonment and exile, but classical theater as political commentary has been elusive.
An obvious reason is that comedy has the place of old theater on the stage taken and then the internet and social media took over the rest with the proliferation of memes and comic clips. Theater has become too much of a hit-and-miss affair to be worth the trouble for many playwrights.
Ironically, serious theater is in jeopardy, especially today it has patronage. There has been a lot of ‘drama for development’ in recent decades, and money has been poured in by Western donors and NGOs.
The result is that many plays today revolve around the domestic abuse of girls and children, gender rights, Human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, environmental degradation and just the occasional corruption.
You’re not going to have a play about a president being assassinated by his mistress; who is a cannibal and eats the flesh of prisoners being killed in the torture chambers; or who has robbed his country’s central bank cleanly.
Theater has become an aid project. Although these are the great problems of the time, their treatment is predictable, boring, entangled in a savior complex; and largely plays it safe and doesn’t want to upset the President and his administration too much.
Maybe I’ll marry when I want will inspire a new generation of playwrights to come out and raise hell.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, author and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. [emailprotected]