Powerful acting lifts ‘The Urge’ despite low turnout

Steenie Njoroge’s performance in The Urge made the painfully powerful point that men, while they may look self-confident, cool and collected, sometimes have a really rough time coping with hidden issues not easily disclosed to any but their most intimate associates.

And even then, men typically are not meant to expose their human frailties, especially if related to their “manhood”.

That’s one reason I feel many male theatre-goers did not rush to see this latest play by the popular Kenyan playwright JPR Ochieng-Odero.

The Urge is about the peculiarly male problem of erectile dysfunction, not exactly the sort of weekend show to take a hot date to, although members of the new Nairobi City Players thought that the public would be curious about the topic.

In spite of the scanty crowds that came to Alliance Francaise last weekend, Steenie, playing Kamong’o Solo, put up a strong emotive performance as a man plagued with a diminished sense of his manhood, making clear how closely some men identity sexual virility with self-worth.

Kamong’a never speaks specifically about his problem but he does have desperate, often angry conversations with his “Binaisah” (named after the former Ugandan president who is bald-headed), urging “him” to behave and perform. Yet the more desperate he becomes, the less capacity he has to get over the stress associated with his flagging sexuality.

My one problem with the play is that Kamong’a gives us a detailed history of the humiliation he has endured since the problem first arose, but the playwright never interrogates the psychological dimension of sex, only the physicality of it.

For instance, the first time “Binaisah” fails him, all we know is that the woman in question is hot. There’s no reflection on Kamong’a’s marriage, whether he feels anything for cheating on his wife. What’s clear is only that the attraction is purely physical, but many studies have shown that sex is as much a psychological issue as a physical one.

Ultimately, Kamong’a reckons his problem is related to age, the idea that he’s getting on in years and ED tends to be an issue affecting older men.

So Mr Solo finally says he’s reconciled to his problem, even though it has practically ruined his marriage and made him a laughing stock among his neighbours as his wife has maliciously told them all about his failing.

I don’t quite buy the ending, especially as today, the pill Viagra is a popular panacea used by many older men, yet Ochieng-Odero never even mentions it.

Still, I applaud Steenie and director Odingo Hawi for reviving or rather totally revamping the Nairobi City Players, given the group is committed to producing original plays by African writers and more especially by Kenyans.

“That’s one reason we chose JPR’s play, but we also want to find more (quality) scripts by Kenyans,” Odingo said.

He and Steenie have been together in Kenyan theatre for decades and have worked with some of the finest thespians Kenyans have ever seen, acting in plays by John Ruganda (who often directed them), Athol Fugard and even Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Meanwhile, at Kenya National Theatre, preparations are going on all this weekend for another “world premiere” production which opens November 10.

Puma is by Mkawasi Mcharo-Hall who is also the show’s director and ambitious playwright.

Having scripted and directed amazing plays in the 1990s even before she went for further theatre studies in the US, Mkawasi is one of Kenya’s most seasoned professional thespians who has directed plays up and down the East Coast of the USA.

Her return to her homeland is in large part due to her desire to get Kenyans’ input and feedback for the play which I saw in “read-through” form more than a month ago.

Puma’s a fascinating story that touches on many of Kenya’s most topical and touchy issues, even as it’s enlivened by humour and ironic reflection on our sad state of public affairs today.

For big laughs on stage, there is rarely a better place to go than to a Heartstrings production since director Sammy Mwangi specialises in making fun of the foibles of Kenyan everyday life.

He and his cast get away with either alluding to or explicitly saying things on stage that might get any other cast in trouble for exposing their greed, hypocrisy, corrupt practices of all kinds— that is if they don’t do so with the light touch that is Heartstrings’ hallmark.

“It wasn’t me” opens tonight at Alliance Francaise and runs through the weekend.

Finally, the public needs to know that Parking at Kenya National Theatre is back to the normal rates they used to have before someone decided it was cool to raise rates astronautically.