Call it a legend, lore, a folk tale or a precise portrayal of pre-colonial Luo history, the Ghosts of the Lake illustrates a story well-known among many Luo people.
Kenyatta University (KU) senior students ‘curated’ the play that was staged on March 26 at Kenya Cultural Centre.
“It is their final project,” KU theatre arts lecturer Brenda Juma said. That means every aspect of the play had been covered by students from the Department of Theatre and Film at KU.
From the scriptwriting, auditioning, and casting of characters, to the direction, production, and stage management of the show, even critical details like costuming and make-up have to be appraised by adjudicators who are capable of tearing a play apart if they don’t like the quality of the production presented.
Ghosts was only staged twice on one day, Sunday, March 26, so the students should know their fate very soon.
I felt the performance overall was well done. However, the theme of Ghosts of the Lake is hardly new and original.
It would seem that almost every community in Kenya has its only prophet who foresees the coming of the white man and the destruction of the people’s peace of mind.
In this case, the prophet is a prophetess, Sangoi, and her, like so many seers or foreseers of the future, has a message that isn’t necessarily well received.
Often, these visionaries are not taken seriously. They are either ignored or seen as an inconvenience since they have a message the rulers do not want to hear or heed.
We see this being the case as Sangoi explains the dangers coming to her Chief Ogada (Wayne Mbudi who is also the playwright and director).
But instead of making any kind of preparations for his people, he takes pride in having the toughest army of warriors who he feels assured cannot be defeated.
In fact, once the white ‘ghosts’ arrive, it is their guns that interest him most. It is almost as if he is so mesmerised by the white men’s firepower that he loses track of the threat they pose to his people.
When asked to sign on the dotted line, he doesn’t know what he is being asked. But if it’s anything that will enable him to have more guns more quickly, he’s happy to sign.
And as he does, his kingdom quickly crumbles. His crown is pulled off by a contingent of his people who call him a thief and pull him down off his throne.
Thus, the play ends, and one is left with the assumption, these people will be assimilated into Western ‘civilisation’ but that’s a whole other story.
What is also important for the appraisers to check is the quality of acting, which I felt was generally very good. I was especially impressed with General Erskine (Zein Aboud) who played his hand well with Chief Ogada (Wayne Mbudi).
There was also lots of music and dancing in Ghosts, both elements of which were well integrated into the overall storyline.
The dancers were well-choreographed, with their vigorous high energy and their costuming a colourful mix of traditional and modern styles.
And after the first Chief dies, the mourning was thankfully short, lasting just long enough for you to get the gist of how sad the people felt to lose a good peace-loving man.
The son, the king’s heir, is still a teenager when he is preparing to be crowned. But he cannot be elevated to Chief until he has a wife, so there has to be a hunt for the best young woman.
However, we never meet her, which could be an indicator of how gender bias was already prevalent in precolonial Luo society or how it persists today, possibly in the male playwright’s mind.
Why one can’t rule out Mbudi’s bias is because he made a big deal of the search for the bride but once she’s found, she’s forgotten, never to be seen at all.
In any case, the prophetess Sangoi makes up for any shortcomings on the playwright’s side regarding gender bias, since she is such an important and well-conceived character, and the actress, Ann Kiveli, is marvellous not only as a seer but also as a storyteller.
She has this nuisance of a grandchild (Fridah Chemata) who bullies her grannie into telling sweet stories that lift us into a deeper appreciation of Luo culture.
Even the props, like the portable boat, are well-conceived, leaving the play with a ten-over-ten success.
This article was first published in the Business Daily.