I do not remember the last time I was talking about books, and someone mentioned a play as one of the books they are currently reading. Sitting down over a bottle of vodka with a friend recently, we started talking about the play and the crumbling nature of the genre. He told me of times when he used to hang around the Kenya National Theatre, helping the likes of Francis Imbuga and David Mulwa go through their scripts. They would give you to read first before the play hit the stage or got to the publisher. Then we talked about the only published plays we know from East Africa: I Will Marry When I Want by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Aminata by Francis Imbuga, The Burdens by John Ruganda. Most of us did not read these plays because we wanted to, but mostly because they were in the syllabus.
And if you were born in the ages of the fishes and the dinosaurs, you will know the joy of reading Othello by W. Shakespeare and how much fun Oscar Wilde was. And if you had a chance you might have held in your hands a copy of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Unfortunately for East Africa and its environs, the play as a genre is becoming a decaying edifice. These days, everyone is a poet, everyone is a blogger, and everyone is a writer. Rarely will you meet a young playwright who is trying to push their manuscripts into a publisher’s laps. You will not hear plays being nominated in literature awards these days. When you attend plays at the Alliance Francaise’, like the most recent I attended, A Woman of No Importance, just a handful of Oscar Wilde lovers came out to watch. Is it that there is really no commercial viability of the play and so writers who would have been great playwrights opt to become bankers? Or should we just say that times are changing and TV has replaced stage plays?
Do not get me wrong; I think the travelling theatres are doing a great job these days, especially in the past two years where they have been staging local plays. It however does not help them when the theatre is only a quarter-way full for the three days that the production is showing. The exodus from the play is also very evident on the bookshelves. There are very few published plays on our bookshops. Secondary Schools on the other hand are still stuck on the good old days of Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of The People.
The only person, may he Rest In Peace, whose love for plays especially in Kenya has gone unmatched is the late Ezekiel Alembi, the former chairman of the Kenya Drama Festivals. He loved the playwrights and tried to resurrect this genre until the last day. He would even try to convert anyone who dared not profess his love for plays into a playwright. He would sit you down and forcefully teach you. Then he would enter you into the International Festival of Young Playwrights where he was president.
Tell me though; are the days gone when playwrights were the literary gatekeepers? Is the play dead? When was the last time you read a play, or went to watch one?