This weekend we finally made it out to the Alliance Francaise for a play. More than a cultural outing, this turned out to be an anthropologically interesting experience. The play – titled Kenyan Playboy and conceived by Churchill, one of Kenya’s premier comedians – was absurd in every respect. Before the show started, the theater company entertained the audience by projecting its facebook page on a big screen and interacting with audience members, inviting them to “like” the page and tempting them with offers of free t-shirts, which were subsequently handed out during the performance. At the start of the show, the facebook page gave way to a giant image of the Kenyan flag and the entire audience rose as the lights dimmed and the national anthem blasted from the loudspeakers. The anthem transitioned into an oddly-remixed and entirely out-of-place recording of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, which looped over itself while the photos and names of the actors were flashed on the screen.
Then the play began. The first two actors to appear onstage delivered long, loud monologues in English. Their speeches were a bit disjointed but also pretty entertaining, and we settled in to enjoy the show. Unfortunately, once an entire group of actors took the stage at the same time, the English started ceding ground to Kiswahili. The more the actors interacted with one another, the more Kiswahili they used. They still delivered some of their lines in English, but it seems that the punch lines were punchier in Kiswahili. We still found plenty of opportunities to chuckle, but judging by the audience reaction, we were missing out on the best jokes. As the title should imply, the play did not rely on high-brow humor and even though we understood less than half of the lines, it was still relatively easy to follow the plot. The play largely relied on tribal stereotypes and chauvinist humor as it followed a group of men “being men”: they went whoring, complained about how their wives did not meet their expectations, and tried to find the perfect woman (i.e. one that would clean, cook well, have her own money, and have both beauty and brains) for one of their compatriots. Interestingly, Kenyan theater appears to have only one volume. There was no voice modulation – the actors just yelled at one another at the top of their lungs, often shouting over each other. One of the actors even started losing his voice midway through the performance.
Our favorite character was a professor who expounded on the meaning of the word ‘playboy’ during the interludes. Over the course of several breaks in the action, he proceeded to explain the morphology of the word and gave an extensive discourse on the various stages of Freudian psychological development. He spoke “contraceptively”, mispronouncing or misusing big words; whenever the audience would heckle him over his mistakes, he would say that these were “Luoisms” that were beyond the comprehension of his listeners – Luos are known as an academic tribe that tends to pursue extra degrees just for the sake of hanging the diplomas behind their desks.
After two and a half hours without intermission, the play reached a climactic moment and it appeared that the end was near. However, after the lights dimmed on what seemed like a perfect ending scene, the male actors inexplicably showed up onstage in swimwear, jumping around and pouring water on each other. It took us a few minutes to realize that the narrative had shifted from Nairobi to the beaches of Mombasa and that the play would go on with no end in sight. One of our friends went to inquire when this madness would be over and returned with the discouraging news that the show would go on for at least another hour. We had made dinner reservations and, after a brief consultation with the rest of our friends, decided that the restaurant promised more enticing entertainment than the rest of the play. We are not typically ones to walk out of a theater early, but it was clear that there was not much more we would get out of the Kenyan Playboy.