John Sibi-Okumu

John Sibi-Okumu.

| File | Nation Media Group

‘King’ John Sibi-Okumu wields his sceptre with ‘Collected Plays’

What you need to know:

  • John Sibi-Okumu himself hardly needs any introduction on the Kenyan, East African or, indeed, international scene.
  • Teacher, linguist, poet, TV and radio presenter, film and stage actor, director, producer and a versatile playwright, that is our man, in brief.

He is not quite a King in real life. He is officially only a Knight, “Sir John”, a Chevalier des Palmes Academiques. John Sibi-Okumu was knighted by France for his outstanding services to French culture. Mwalimu JSO, as he is also endearingly called, has been teaching and promoting French in Kenyan institutions since his return from graduate studies in Toulouse many years ago.

But now we introduce the latest exploit of this astounding artist, man of culture and paragon of communication. He has just given us a volume of his dramatic works, Collected Plays, from the Jahazi Press.

John Sibi-Okumu himself hardly needs any introduction on the Kenyan, East African or, indeed, international scene. Even calling him “king” sounds belittling to those who know the man who has not only been many kings (onstage), ranging from Oedipus to Creon, but also remains a colossus bestriding our entire realm of creative media. Teacher, linguist, poet, TV and radio presenter, film and stage actor, director and producer and, as shown by this recent publication of his, Collected Plays, a versatile playwright, that is our man, in brief.

A single word from such a maestro would be a happening, an emphatic gesture from him would be an event. What then shall we call a solid, neatly-bound volume of six of his dramatic texts, time and stage-tested over 10 years, 2004-14, and meticulously edited over the next seven? Add to that prefaces and endorsements by such stalwarts as Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okumu’s former teacher, voice-of-the-arts strongwoman Margaretta wa Gacheru and iconic constitutional jurist, Prof Yash Pal Ghai. The word for me is “celebration”, and I am already joining in.

But mine is not mere enthusiastic bandwagon jumping. I have known John Sibi-Okumu since the mid-1970s, when he was quite young, and I have always admired and respected his work, especially in the performing arts. In theatre, I hardly missed a Nairobi show where “JSO” was appearing. I only saw the final dress rehearsal of the Muntu world premiere, in 1976, where Sibi-Okumu acted as “First Son”, along such legends as David Mulwa and the late Francis Imbuga and Joe de Graft.

I was, however, to see much more of Sibi-Okumu as I settled down in Nairobi and became part of the theatre-going community. Each of his performances was memorable, but two stand out particularly in my mind. The earlier one was in the anti-apartheid two-hander, Woza Albert, with Oluoch Obura, under the direction of the late John Ruganda.

Distinguished career

The second was the Latin American torture chamber “fantasy”, Death and the Maiden, in which Sibi-Okumu’s performance, opposite the dazzling and brilliant Mumbi Kaigwa, remains as fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday. That was in 1993, at Ufungamano House, and it left me wondering what made John Sibi-Okumu such a powerful presence and communicator in everything he touched.

An obvious part of the answer is, of course, natural talent, like his knack and aptitude for languages. This sees him “rap”, and write, with equal ease in, among other tongues, English, French, Kiswahili and “Lunyala lwefe” (when we talk across the invisible “border” at Busia). Another built-in advantage is Sibi-Okumu’s privileged and richly international upbringing and education, in Britain, Kenya, France and elsewhere.

That said, however, Sibi-Okumu’s distinguished career, and the power of his writing as evidenced in his Collected Plays, is mainly due to his uniquely intense approach to his work, characterised by devotedness, professional precision, socio-political concern and an incisive sense of humour, or insight into the human mind.

Devotedness simply means love for the job. I have said elsewhere that, in the arts, a true professional has to start as a very good amateur. I am sure Franglophone Sibi-Okumu easily understands “amateur” in its original sense of “lover”.

Most of the performances through which John Sibi-Okumu rose to prominence were amateur in the literal sense that they were not for pay or profit. But he approached them with such devotion and passion that they inevitably propelled him to professional roles, like his appearances in international films, including The Constant Gardener and Shaking Hands With the Devil.

Love for theatre

Sibi-Okumu’s passionate love for theatre, and everything “communication”, accounts for what I call his professional precision. He plans, prepares and executes his roles, whether pedagogical, theatrical or journalistic, with meticulous diligence and seriousness. This, I think, is what enabled him to run with distinction his famous “Summit” interviews with top personalities, ranging from three of our Presidents to celebrities like the late Wangari Maathai.

That professionalism is strongly reflected in the texts in Collected Plays. The author writes with a full theatre insider’s experience and insight. Nothing, from dialogue to character outlines to stage directions, is left to chance. Indeed, this volume should be required reading for all performing arts professionals.

Most importantly, however, Sibi-Okumu’s plays are a moving record of the reflections of a sensitive, educated and articulate Kenyan struggling to find meaningful survival and existence through the turbulent first five decades of our uhuru. As one commentator has observed, “the socio-political evolution of his country is a constant inspiration for him”.

The central theme of the collection is who we are, where we are and where we are going. Each of the plays in the collection, ranging from Kaggia, a dramatization of the fate of one of the Kapenguria heroes who fell out badly with the system, to Role Play, a psycho-social exploration of the contemporary Kenyan character, touches on this theme.

The treat in the reading is that Sibi-Okumu presents his material with not only viable and efficient stage techniques and effects, including music and dance, but also with a robust and healthy wit and sense of humour. He gets a lot of mileage out of our multilingualism and multiple identities, including the “Asian” one that we very often tend to ignore or suppress in our social interactions.

I will be celebrating, tomorrow, the 56th anniversary of my first arrival in Nairobi. Will you join me?

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]

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