Today was a truly special day.
Our first full day in Kenya, and our first performance.
We visited Precious Blood Kagwe Girls’ school in Kiambu, about an hour north of the city. The surrounding landscape was beautiful. We paused on the road to look out over the Great Rift, a soft, green valley, interrupted by ancient volcanoes and lakes dotted bluely across the trench like the drippings of a paintbrush. The Rift runs, in its classic estimation, from the Jordan Rift all the way to Mozambique.
Pushing further into Kiambu, we find beautiful steep hills carved by ingenious, stubborn agricultural activity. Donkeys, cattle, and sheep roam. With every curve in the road we come to another dramatic view of enormous shade trees on the horizon. Marcel and I remark that there’s something about the trees in foreign regions: the new silhouettes, and leaf formations, even the way they stand up from the land speaks immediately to the wanderer, announcing a difference, however subtle, in the native soil.
Around two o’clock, we arrive at the school. And we are told that there will be 400 girls coming to see Antigone. I wonder when was the last time that happened somewhere in the world.
The show takes place in their dining hall/auditorium. And 400 turns out to be a conservative estimate. With no prep time, we are suddenly shoving chairs in every direction and flipping tables in a sea of forest green uniforms. We still don’t have our costumes and props (in fact I am writing now on the way to the airport to pick up whatever bags have finally arrived today), so the show opens with a white bucket turned upside down and a single white candle balanced on it.
I can’t do a play-by-play of the entire show, but I can say it was the kind of day that justified and reaffirmed the commitment every company member has made to working in theatre. They each said so themselves, in his or her own words, following the performance. The audience at Kagwe Girls’ was so curious, so invested. I remember when Marcel arrived as the Messenger, more than four-hundred heads whipping suddenly to see who was coming. The incredible wave of hisses when Lunga/Kreon leapt forward and grabbed Peter/Hamon by the collar made the hair stand on my arms. That was followed quickly by a kind of implosive shock when Hamon tells Kreon “you are not my blood.”
Mark Smaltz captured the unique joy of the afternoon best of all when he stood, choked up, and told the girls, “I’ve been doing theatre for 30 years, and I’ve never had an audience like I had today.” The other actors echoed his sentiment, and we naturally stayed for more than an hour to talk with the audience, fielding one incisive comment after another.
Regarding Kreon, one student said, “It can be the role of a leader to tell people what to do, but there is a fine line between doing what’s best for the city and telling people what to do.” Another student, named Vivian, chimed in to suggest Kreon’s mistake was in ruling through fear rather than listening to his people.
One student, who must surely be dear in Mosher’s heart, remarked that Antigone’s situation was like if, “my brother were to join Al Shabaab.” Lunga probed at this point, bringing the imaginary circumstances of the play home to modern Kenya. On the ride home, Joy from the Columbia Global Center, who arranged this performance and has been instrumental in coordinating our entire schedule for Nairobi, explained that the issue of siblings in Al Shabaab is not academic: most students know a friend who knows a friend whose sibling has decided to join.
The cast’s own view of the play was somewhat shaken by one of the final speakers, a young woman who described Antigone’s actions as selfish. “Her brother is responsible for the deaths of many people. She is not the only one in the city.” We were chewing on that one over dinner many hours later.
Much like with the rehearsal at Casita Maria, our company found it gratifying to participate in a talkback that focused, with passion and curiosity, on the issues of the play, rather than trivial matters intended to flatter either the speaker or the famous person on stage.
They won’t all be like this, but one day into our journey and the entire expedition has succeeded as much as any of us could hope. The belief we’ve committed to, the one that Mosher says began this adventure, has been confirmed and rewarded: we had no props, costumes, or lights, only a powerful story and an exceptional audience who met us at every step. Real theatre happened. And a room full of brilliant young faces expanded many times over with inspiration.