Imbuga's play proof of how little Kenyan politics has changed 

Francis Imbuga’s “Betrayal In The City” staged at Kenya National Theatre

Brian Muchemi as Mulili listens sheepishly as Raymond Ofula as Boss gives him a stern talking to in Nairobi Performing Arts Studio play of Francis Imbuga’s “Betrayal In The City” staged at Kenya National Theatre from March 2 to 12. 

Photo credit: Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

He wasn’t available for the first-ever staging of the late Francis Imbuga’s play, Betrayal in the City, but he gave the performance of his life when the play was re-staged a fortnight ago at the Kenya National Theatre.

Raymond Ofula, a seasoned actor, played Boss, and the role suited him. Even though he had very few lines, the character’s shadow looms large throughout the play.

The play was staged 14 times on the weekends of March 3 and March 10, selling out most of the time. The production was handled by the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio and directed by Stuart Nash. 

Betrayal in the City is a story about a country whose unpopular leadership fears losing power. Boss, the president, has his relative, Mulili, in all sectors of government looking out for any dissenters and helping him steal public funds through government deals.

When university students rise up to protest against the government, one of them is killed and a professor at the university is jailed after being framed for drug possession. This follows a speech he gives at the deceased student’s burial.

The set was meticulously done to immerse the audience into the different scenes: From a grave site to a prison, to a house, to a boardroom and so on.

The lights were used to set the moods: Bright for light moments and dimmed down for sombre or more serious scenes.

There were three occasions where a gunshot sound was used, but the last one was louder and echoed a bit longer than the other two because of the intensity of the scene.

Political scene

The play may have been published in 1976, but it is proof of just how little things have changed in Kenya’s political scene over the last five decades.

The play was promoted primarily using Ofula, an award-winning thespian who, for 25 years, had shied from the stage because he prefers to be in plays that have a message to society — not just for laughs or entertainment.

“I know about Betrayal in the City. I was supposed to be in the first production in 1977 but I got busy. But I did watch,” says Ofula. 

The thespian missed most of the rehearsals for the recent staging as he was in Rwanda shooting another production. He has always insisted on getting the full script or synopsis of any project he undertakes in order to know how his character fits in.

Without this, he says, an actor will simply be reading lines, which is unprofessional. Also, politics in Kenya has never been straightforward, and this plays out every other day. These realities enabled him to bring out the character.

“People like Boss drive a story. In acting, they say the devil has the best lines. For me, this is because an actor has to play a persona that is outside his character, so he naturally comes out playing the worst version of that character. Boss is not a good person, so I wanted to portray him with all his filth,” says Ofula.

He also says that the producer spared nothing in bringing the set to life. He ensured the audience really got into the different “locations”.

“I appreciate that a lot of professionalism has been infused into the set designs. Coming from my last time, I like the development and I think theatre has moved much, much farther,” says Ofula.

Francis Faiz Ouma got the role he auditioned for — Jusper. From the jump, Faiz doesn’t believe Jusper is crazy but he wanted to know what really made the character act the way he did. He researched deeply, and talked to actors and directors who’ve previously played the character. He read and analysed the script daily, and asked fellow actors questions on how he could portray Jusper best.

“I wrote down some things I wanted to explore in every show. In each show, you get different energy from the audience. The authenticity of the character remained constant but my motivations changed with every show,” says Faiz, adding that casting directors and audience members showed extreme interest in his future projects.

Ibrahim Muchemi – an actor, voice actor, drama and speech trainer mainly for school children – was debuting his comedic acting chops.

“I was afraid of doing Mulili. I’ve always been serious on stage and on set. To get into the role, I used what I call a skill box. If I see a funny character in the streets, on TV, or hear them on the radio, I pick a few things and then store them somewhere. When the day comes for me to use these, I take them out,” said Ibrahim, adding that there are enough “Mulilis” if you watch the news.


Ibrahim had done the set book play a decade ago, but the ovation from the crowd at the end of the shows is the only thing that came closest to a payment. 

“Stage art is addictive because you’re telling the audience the truth in your own way and they laugh at themselves. There are even lines they laugh at and then seconds later they exclaim because they relate to them,” he said.

Ibrahim’s next move is to attend workshops to help him get out of character and make him a blank canvas once more in readiness for the next role he will take up.

Actor Fish Chege said he felt the weight of the message behind the play. He starred as a prison guard.

“We may not be under the same governance system we had in the ‘70s, but a lot of things are still happening now. We had to find a way of sneaking that in there to make it relatable and believable to the current audience,” says the actor, who says theatre is the mirror of society.

Fish says the most difficult time for him was when they were doing rehearsals for the entry and exits between scenes in order to get the timings right. 

“It is a better way of doing productions. There were people who did the play at Alliance Francaise back in the 2000s and they are telling us we did a great job. We had several sold-out shows to show for it,” he sums.

Omondi Ngota plays Doga, Jusper’s father. He was coming back to theatre for the first time since 2009.

The challenge for Ngota was that in the play, he had to be angry while mourning, throughout. Doga’s other son is killed and Jusper seemingly loses his mind afterwards, so he loses two sons in one go. 

“Variety in acting provides a release. But to get out of that character I had to go to social places or stay at home, where there are people to help me de-character. ”

Ngota acted in theatre from 1987 to 1994 before his teaching job took him to Garissa and he started directing in the Kenya Schools and Colleges Drama Festivals. He says working with Stuart Nash is different because he discusses the actors’ roles with them, and then lets them perform as the lines lead them. 

Voice, stage and screen actor Wakio Mzenge played Jusper’s mother, Nina. Nina is a village woman who loves her children very much and wants them to do well. She has worked hard to get them to university.

“I create biographies for characters and how the things they’ve experienced have propelled their lives to the point where we meet them in the script. I start by thinking of people that I have seen – I’m a people watcher – and use the little notes to create the character,” says Wakio who was one of only two female characters in the play. 

“Unlike her husband, Nina is feisty, knows what she wants and demands it even if she has to embarrass herself. It is interesting to see women who are bold enough to speak out and take on their positions as mothers and women. It is reflective of the society now, where women are putting themselves out there and not shying from responsibilities, despite the judgement,” she says.