#WorldTheatreDay2023: The State of Kenya’s Theatre Industry: Celebrating the Ups and Downs, Navigating Challenges, and Charting a Way Forward. 

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Introduction

Kenya’s theatre industry has a rich history dating back to the colonial era. Over the years, it has grown to become a significant contributor to the country’s cultural and artistic identity. However, the industry has also faced several challenges, including funding, lack of infrastructure, and competition from other forms of entertainment. 

In this article, we will take a closer look at the current state of Kenya’s theatre industry, celebrating its ups and downs, and charting a way forward.

History of Theatre in Kenya:

Theatre in Kenya has its roots in traditional performances such as dances, storytelling, and songs. However, the modern theatre as we know it was introduced during the colonial era. The establishment of the National Theatre in Nairobi in the 1950s and the establishment of the Kenya National Theatre in 1962 helped to formalize the industry. Over the years, theatre productions in Kenya have addressed social and political issues, including corruption, tribalism, and governance.

Current State of the Industry:

Kenya’s theatre industry faces several challenges, including a lack of funding, limited infrastructure, and competition from other forms of entertainment such as television, cinema, and the internet’s streaming services. Many theatre groups struggle to secure funding for their productions, resulting in limited resources to hire professional actors and production crews. The lack of proper infrastructure, including theatres and performance spaces, makes it difficult for theatre groups to stage their productions.

Digital and online technology have revolutionized the theatre industry globally, providing new ways to create, distribute, and consume content. In Kenya, digital and online technology innovations have played a crucial role in enhancing the theatre industry, particularly during & after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual auditions and digital casting platforms have enabled actors and other theatre professionals to audition and secure roles remotely, and online training and educational resources have made it easier for aspiring theatre professionals to gain skills and knowledge. These innovations have greatly enhanced the world of theatre, offering new opportunities for artists to showcase their work and advance their careers.

Success Stories:

Despite the challenges facing the industry, there have been successful theatre productions and initiatives in Kenya. One such production is the critically acclaimed “Sarafina!” musical that was produced in 2018 by the Kenya National Theatre after 15 years, the Sarafina — based on a film about students’ uprising in apartheid South Africa. The production addressed issues of oppression, discrimination, and social injustice, and received rave reviews from audiences and critics alike. Another successful initiative is the Nairobi Musical Theatre Initiative, which brings together theatre enthusiasts and professionals to collaborate on various productions.

Another notable success story that has been making waves in the industry is that of graduates from the Kenya National Theatre who have gone on to work on successful Netflix films. For example, the Kenyan blockbuster “Nairobby,” which features Lorna Lemi in a leading role, tells the story of university students who attempt to pull off a heist. The film has received positive reviews on different platforms and has helped to showcase the talent of Kenyan actors and filmmakers.

Lorna’s performances have been described as nuanced and engaging, and she has been praised for her ability to bring a natural and authentic presence to the characters she plays. Her recent appearance in the stage play “Blessed Be The Fruit” received rave reviews, with critics commending her acting prowess and stage presence. With her talent and dedication to her craft, Lorna Lemi is definitely one of the rising stars to watch out for in the Kenyan theatre industry. 

 

  • She is set to appear in the upcoming Kenyan film “It’s a Free Country,” which takes a satirical and direct approach to crime, politics, and economic inequality in Kenya. The film follows various characters as they navigate challenging situations and push themselves to their limits to survive. Lemi and co-star John Jumbi discussed the film with host David Oyuke in a recent interview by Chatterbox.
  • Additionally, she has been involved in producing breathtaking cinematic short films like “The Hummingbird” and “Brain Storm”, which have been receiving critical acclaim and recognition on various online platforms.

In addition to Lorna Lemi’s work, there are other talented actors from Kenya who are making waves in the film industry. For example, Sheila Munyiva, who starred in the Kenyan film “Kati Kati,” has also appeared in international productions such as the Netflix series “Sense8.” Moreover, Kenyan filmmakers are also making strides on the global stage. For instance, Mbithi Masya’s film “Kati Kati” won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival.

  • Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan-Mexican actress and filmmaker, has won several awards for her performances in movies such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Us.” Similarly, Brian Ogola, who starred in the Kenyan film “Supa Modo,” has appeared in “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” both of which are available on Netflix. 
  • Additionally, Wanuri Kahiu, a Kenyan film director, has received critical acclaim for her work, including her film “Rafiki,” which was banned in Kenya but premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

These successes are helping to put Kenyan cinema on the map and are drawing attention to the country’s vibrant and diverse culture. 

Future of the Industry

To ensure the growth and sustainability of Kenya’s theatre industry, there is a need for increased funding, proper infrastructure, and collaborations. The government and private sector can provide funding to theatre groups to support their productions and help them hire professional actors and production crews.

  • The establishment of more performance spaces across the country will also help to increase the visibility of theatre productions. Collaborations between theatre groups, arts organizations, and educational institutions can also help to build capacity and support the growth of the industry.
  • In addition, Eddy Gathegi, a Kenyan-American actor who has starred in movies such as “X-Men: First Class” and “Twilight,” is currently in the country to mentor more actors and help bring them to the global stage. His efforts, along with those of other industry professionals, are helping to boost the profile of Kenyan theatre and film, and are inspiring a new generation of talent in the country.

In Conclusion:

To ensure the growth and sustainability of the industry, there is a need for increased funding, proper infrastructure, and collaborations.

Overall, the theatre industry in Kenya is experiencing a period of growth and creativity, with talented actors, filmmakers, and theatre practitioners pushing boundaries and showcasing their craft on both local and international stages. Digital and online technology innovations have greatly enhanced the world of theatre, offering new opportunities for artists to showcase their work and advance their careers.

As the industry continues to evolve, it is likely that we will see even more exciting and innovative work from the Kenyan theatre scene in the years to come. With the right support, Kenya’s theatre industry has the potential to continue to flourish and make its mark on the global stage.

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