Just when I was about to lose hope of ever going to the theatre in 2021, Silent Voices Uganda and GILBÁRT Productions staged a musical at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi.
‘Subira’ is the story of Lukalia, a young man forced to leave his beloved, Subira, in Kakamega and travel to Nairobi to join the Kenya Armed Forces. It is 1982 and unbeknownst to him, some junior officers are going to attempt a coup soon after he enlists into the army.
The musical opens with the two lovebirds sitting outside the crying stone in Kakamega, exchanging sweet nothings and kisses.
What follows is brilliant storytelling executed in a series of songs, well-choreographed dances (by Jean Kerr) and great acting directed by Adong Judith and Kaz Kasozi. We are led into a moment in history intricately painted into a web of brutality, brotherhood, love triangles, deception and betrayal.
Among the star cast is Nice Githinji, a talented actress with an incredible voice. Githinji effortlessly immerses herself into her multiple roles: from naïve girl to fierce lover and then practical woman.
Her romance with Lukalia (played by Zambian actor Mundawarara Shaun) is so beautiful it keeps us on the edges of our seats. Mundawarara balances valour with sensitivity and a powerful singing voice that pays tribute to the play’s music and vocal trainer — Uganda’s Ayo Jimmy. Together with Alusa (Charles Ouda), the main actors deliver an emotionally charged act with great lead voices and witty punchlines.
The lively, larger cast (consisting of Gilbert Lukalia, Thuita Christopher, Gakenda Dadson, Byamugisha Gilbert, Aswani Ken and Neville Ignatius) manages to passionately deliver an issue-laden play without falling into melodrama, tribal stereotypes or bathos.
The playwright, Adong Judith, brings to life an important slice of history through a heartbreaking love story told with nuance and wit and set against the backdrop of the coup.
It is possible that the high quality of the show is the result of the collaboration among artists from different countries. We heaved a collective sigh of relief when the musical didn’t play to the stereotypes and ‘accent’ jokes Kenyan theatre suffers from.
Overall, Subira is a memorable, timely experience as this week marks the 39th year since the coup attempt. One only wishes that the directors had included some Kenyan classics, oldies from the 80s, a bit of Jacob Luseno and Eric Wainaina, or popular bands like Sauti Sol to evoke the spirit and mood of our nation.
The set was impeccable, as were the costumes and décor. My only issue was with the ending. As with life, no one expects great stories to have neat endings. Leaving it open-ended would have given the audience the opportunity to figure out the dilemma on their own and as such, collaborated with the playwright in advancing the narrative.
The last song, though excellently delivered, felt unnecessary. No one needed to hear the lead actor tell us how much he had suffered. We in the audience knew that already. We had suffered alongside him, had our hearts shattered alongside his. That said, ‘Subira’ does an excellent job of welcoming us back to the theatre.
The production manager Sarah Masese says that in these pandemic times, they had to reduce the audience to a handful of socially distanced people. Those of us who got in were just thrilled by the in-person-ness of the event and the fact that we could suspend belief, TikTok and virtual meetings for three hours and lose ourselves in a pre-pandemic world. A make-believe universe where love — and not masks and scarce vaccines — was the thing that made the world go round.
Subira is showing at the Kenya National Theatre until tomorrow. Tickets are sold at the KNT for Sh1,500.