The best thing about Heartstrings’ latest production, Give or Take which they staged last weekend at Alliance Francaise, was the merciless mockery of themselves as an inept, money-grubbing theatre troupe.
Equally laudable was the lampooning of the group’s producer-director Sammy Mwangi who was ‘missing in action’ despite having been paid hundreds of thousands to share with his cast, which he did not. Instead, Mwangi disappeared without having briefed his team.
They were meant to play family members of the soon-to-be spouse, Bryson (Dadson Gakecnga) at a make-believe ruracio (pre-wedding ceremony) for him and his pretend fiancée Grace (Esther Kahuha).
The two had been drinking buddies for years. But there had never been a hint that marriage was in the forecast or even imaginable.
So, when Grace, the ‘Queen of the night’ (a title given to her by Bryson) asks him to marry her, he is confounded, adamant there is nothing like that in the cards.
Yet Grace has finally decided to heed her mother’s wish, that she change her wild ways and get out of the bar culture and into a stable marriage where she can finally give her mom the grandchildren she wants to see before she dies.
Death in two months is the medical forecast for Mama Grace (Bernice Nthenya). That news is what sets off the real drama in the play. My problem with Give or Take is in what preceded that news.
The opening scene is set in a club but behind a well-lit screen so we can only see silhouetted dancers in a heated frenzy as they dance wildly and get lost in the loud, hypnotic sound.
The silhouettes are fine but the scene itself was longer than necessary. Then came the 4am prayer scene which was also too long.
Set in the home of Mama Grace, the parishioners trickled in too slowly, plus their stereotypic religious chatter was also slow and drawn out.
It wasn’t until Grace came in, (drunk and quick to pass out) that the show took off. Grace was the problem.
But since breakfast was about to arrive, (including a packet of Grace’s cookies baked with bhangi (marijuana )inside), a storyline finally emerged: Grace had to change.
The message was made all the more urgent since Mama Grace had just two months to live, according to her best friend, Phyllis (Zaitun Salat).
The next scene didn’t make sense to some men who couldn’t believe that Grace’s decision to get married could mean so much to the Mama.
How could she forgive Grace so quickly when she had been so disgusted with her before? It seemed incredible to this man.
Yet most mothers in this world want to see their daughters safe and settled, and busy making babies so the moms can finally become grandmothers.
That made sense to me as did the decision by Grace’s drinking buddy Bryson not to get married. It’s what led to their calling in the cast of Heartstrings to attend the couple’s ruracio, pretending to be Bryson’s family.
Creating a play within a play is not new. Shakespeare did it centuries ago in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The scene was the high point of hilarity, as I previously suggested since the cast was bound to be unconvincing and cause more havoc up until the truth was revealed.
These were painful moments in the play. Any mother or daughter might easily identify with some aspect of the argument that ensued between Grace and her mother.
It was made all the more poignant by the fact that these two actresses are among the best in Nairobi. Both were serious contenders for the Kenya Theatre Award for best actress in a lead role, and indeed, the vote allowed Esther to win.
But again, someone who has never seen a Heartstrings production before might be confused by the way the show ends. “Too abrupt”, I heard one newcomer say.
I had to explain that it is a hallmark of their plays that consistently, they end with an unbelievable and unexpected revelation.
In this case, after there seems to be a harmonious and happy resolution of the mother-daughter conflict, the final word comes out of the Mama’s mouth suggesting that maybe she hadn’t been sick at all; maybe she wasn’t going to die in two months.
But most assuredly, she was desperate to do anything to see her daughter change her ways, and this is what she’d achieved.