Coast theatre mourns as two legendary thespians pass on

Kuldip Sondhi

Thespians Kuldip Sondhi (left) and Little Theatre Club of Mombasa chairman Dr Peter Odote at a past event. The LTC is planning to honour Mr Sondhi who died April.

What you need to know:

  • Kuldip Sondhi and Gilbert Owino featured for many years at Mombasa’s Little Theatre Club.
  • The theatre is planning festival to honour the two departed thespians.

Three months after the deaths of two legendary thespians, the industry at the Coast  is still mourning.

Thespians at the Little Theatre Club in Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest theatre, are still coming to terms with the deaths of renowned playwrights Kuldip Sondhi and Gilbert Owino, saying their demise has ‘killed’ original playwriting at the Coast.

Award-winning playwright Sondhi died on April 12 aged 97. A few weeks later, on April 30, his colleague Gilbert Owino died after a short illness.

The two thespians died at a time when the Little Theatre Club was rebranding itself to attract millennials into the industry.

Sondhi is renowned for writing more than 10 stage plays including Kiosk, Parlour Games, Water Pipe and Don Geronemo while Owino, popularly known as 'Gillie', wrote two plays. 

Gillie performed in theatre before transitioning to the TV – acting in Pete as Mzee Msiri.

The long-time members of the club were accomplished writers and poets who were celebrated for their achievement. Mr Sondhi has written 12 short stories and 17 plays, some of which have been published in various anthologies, over the last 17 years while Gillie is celebrated for his two original plays. 

Shattered many dreams

Three months after their deaths, members of the LTC led by chairman Peter Odote are planning to hold a festival in their honour.

While reminiscing on the good old times they shared with his two friends since the 1990s when they met at the club, Dr Odote says the deaths of Sondhi and Gillie have shattered many dreams, killing original playwriting at Little Theatre Club.

“I met Gillie at the Little Theatre Club in 1984 when he came to watch the play Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, directed by Patrick Obath and in which I was the lead character, alongside other theatre heavyweights – Wangui Kanyonyo and Dr Njeri Luseno,” recounted Dr Odote. 

Narrating how Gillie landed most leading or supporting roles in the LTC productions, Dr Odote said he was extremely talented. 

“He was identified as a man with lots of talent. He managed to step in as the lead character in the South African Musical Ipi Tombi in 1986 and retained the same role in the play in 1987 when the play was staged at the National Theatre in Nairobi, eventually directing some later versions of the play, the latest being in 2013,” explained Dr Odote.

Gillie participated in other plays alongside Dr Odote including Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, where his poetry prowess and mastery was displayed. Others are Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again II in 1989, King Kong and Ken Saro Wiwa’s The Transistor Radio, among others.

In 2012, when Gillie saw LTC was not performing optimally, together with Dr Odote and Lucy Syokau, they formed the Friends of LTC to revamp performance arts until the temporary closure in 2017 for major renovations.

Nurturing many actors

“He performed very well in theatre, then went to the TV screens and made a name especially in Pete as Mzee Msiri; he was destined for the real big silver screen benefits,” explained Dr Odote.

The LTC chairman termed the two the pillars of theatre at the Coast. They are celebrated for nurturing many actors, poets, singers and scriptwriters in the country.

Sondhi, who built Reef Hotel Mombasa from scratch, including Reef Hotel in South Coast (which has since been sold), was also known for his generosity and philanthropy.

“He invested so much in theatre production, his interest in stage plays started after his radio award-winning play Beach Access, which I adapted for stage in 1997. His play was a big success and even featured lead BBC radio producer Phiona Ledger,” said Dr Odote. 

Sondhi was later elected trustee of the theatre, eventually becoming the chairman of Board of Trustees until the time of his demise.

The hotelier used his links to senior government officials to push for the renovation of LTC at a cost of Sh50 million.

“Their deaths have dealt a big blow to the industry. Both played a gigantic role in promoting young talent in theatre and drama in this region,” said the LTC chairman.

Original playwrights at the Coast

Dr Odote, the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute business development manager and research scientist, played a pivotal role in sourcing funding for the renovation of the club.

However, theatre and arts activities were cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hindered stage performances completely to date.

Dr Odote said the two were the only original playwrights at the Coast.

“Kuldip understood the expenses put in a play. A production is never cheap hence he created a budget and catered for it,” said Dr Odote.

The two further nurtured young talent.

Kuldip used his connections to help LTC get funds for renovation. 

The club was in a deplorable state. But today, LTC is a beacon for arts and culture for many artistes.

Accomplished writer and poet

Dr Odote urged the youth to tap into their talent, saying creativity is inborn. 

LTC members are discussing the possibility of holding a festival in honour of the two.

“We shall have ‘Kuldip’s corner’ with titles of his plays where individuals are free to bring their own candles and light them in memory of Sondhi,” explained Dr Odote.

Kenya Tourism Federation chairman Mohammed Hersi hailed Sondhi as an accomplished writer and a poet.

“He wrote many plays and even won a BBC award. This is one man who believed in Kenya and fondly talked about it,” narrated Mr Hersi. 

For award winning filmmaker David Anguka, the demise of the two thespians dealt a major blow to stage plays.

“Gillie used to work for me at Pete. I took him from LTC to film and he blended very easily. Sondhi used to write and ensure the show was performed,” said Mr Anguka.


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