I feel great this morning. I am in Africa, in Kenya, and today I did not set an alarm and I slept in late for the first time since 2013. I slept until 11:00 am like a teenager. I then did my wash on my hands and knees for two hours and I have lines of laundry in my yard as proof. I listened to the BBC and I heard Top of the Pops which I used to love in 1981 in Scotland. Pharrell Williams’ HAPPY was number four and has been on the charts for 18 weeks. “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof/Because I’m happy/Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.”
Happiness is the truth.
Yesterday my classroom was a room without a roof. I had a surreal experience, one I have never had in the United States, of taking a theatre production on location and handing it off to a film-maker to document. What I thought would be dry documentation, a few run-throughs of our 20 minute show for a camera to capture, soon turned into a 3 hour film shoot. It was frickin’ amazing. To watch my twelve students, the cast of KUMI NA MBILI, adjust to new spacing, new timing, sound and camera-men and cords, re-takes and new blocking, was beyond glorious. I am so proud of the work of these amazing human beings and artists.
Oh. Where were we? At PAWA 254, a 5 story building off State House Road near the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi on a graffiti-filled rooftop garden with a view of the Nairobi skyline. That’s all. BOOM! The location alone was enough to stop me in my tracks. Playing with new artists from the film world with our original theatre show about identity for three hours was beyond inspiring. “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof/Because I’m happy/Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.”
A journey begins with a single step.
On Sunday, 23 February I invited twelve undergraduate students from the Department of Theatre Arts and Film Technology at Kenyatta University to my home to interview for an article. One of the twelve, a 19-year old powerhouse named Austin Opata, asked me to work with the group on an original show. I took a breath and said ‘Ndio’, ‘Yes’, and an amazing pact was made. If you know me, you know that when I say ‘Yes’ to something a pact is made for 100% engagement. I don’t do anything half way and I live what I teach: “A professional does what they say they will do. It is unprofessional to not do what you say you will do.’ Five weeks later we were on the roof of PAWA 254 filming after sharing our show with an audience of 200 at Kenyatta University.
How did it go? How can I answer this question? This would imply that the goal was to make a great product, that the goal was the show, the end. I learned long ago that the journey is the goal, and the product then happens. The five weeks of planning, writing, scheduling, e-mailing, texting, and rehearsing went very well indeed, as we learned to work together, as we listened and shared stories, as we staged our show in pieces and made decisions together. And I learned what it meant to adapt my skills to make a show as an American in Kenya. I did not make an American show.
We rehearsed a fraction of what I am used to in America. We had six rehearsals total over 5 weeks. I had one rehearsal with all 12 actors; someone was absent for every other rehearsal. We finished staging the show this Wednesday, and ran the piece for the first time in our performance space, Harambee Hall, on Thursday, the day of the show, without a full cast. Everything was a new challenge, and I had to really, really place myself in Africa time and Africa energy. I needed to just relax and learn to go with what was actually happening rather than what I wished was happening. In Kenya I had no control. Even securing the performance venue with no conflicts and no other groups rehearsing or making noise in the back of the hall or outside the hall was not a guarantee fifteen minutes before show time. Scheduling conflicts appeared like the flying ants that appear after every rain in Kenya. I was swarmed with challenges. Like the swarm of ants that entered my home after a heavy rain before I knew to shove a towel under my front door, I was able to kill some of the ants by stomping on them and destroying them, while others flew into my back and head from behind while others just flew away. I was working in a brave new world.
How did it go? Austin shared the following today:
#theKUMINAMBILI, we are working towards dissolving the difference between us, coz with that, we move forward, let’s all come out n solve this, we can’t just solve it as kumi na mbili, but as me and you, join #theKUMINAMBILI team n lets all dissolve this differences wherever we are….love you all!
the differences might be racial, cultural, political, tribal or ideological or any other thing, but come on guyz, its time to live beyond that and work on a better future for us all! the change is me, the change extends to my brother, the change is for us all!
Thank you Lord for what I now have, thank you for Kumi na mbili, thank you for Hess, thank you for everything! Bless us All!”
My goals as a teacher are enormous and they are more than to teach skills and share technical information. I love changing the way people think and they way they behave through teaching, using theatre and acting as tools for something far greater than just making good theatre.
Austin gets it. Look what Austin can now articulate that he maybe couldn’t five weeks ago: “the change is me, the change extends to my brother, the change is for us all!”
Austin wants to be a director. BOOM! Happiness is the truth.