Jacob: A Tribute

During a rehearsal for “Puma” in Nairobi, I struggled to get the scene in this photo to work technically. In my writer-director’s mind, the oath-taking President figure (Gilbert Lukalia) was supposed to slide smoothly across the stage, ghost-like, follow-spot on him as oaths from the 4 presidents in Kenya’s history fill the auditorium. A moving mausoleum that repeats itself like a national nightmare.

My solution? A hydraulic system which we were also to use for both vertical and horizontal shifting of actors. Since I didn’t have enough funds for such lofty technical idea (Mkawasi, Mkawasi… sigh!), the technical director (Jacob Otieno ) came up with a solution– put wheels on a low platform and have a crew at the wings, out of sight, pulling the platform with the president figure standing on it. Cool! You could live for these moments of creative high and die happy.

Lukalia pounded in the wheels backstage until it was ready for a test run. We tried it several times but it just wasn’t working the way I wanted. Jacob watched me struggle to bring my ideas to life, refusing to surrender the image in my mind and its symbolism. He left, came back and said to me- Do this: Change the symbolism. This was Jacob. I listened.

I’ll tell you why I listened. My fist lessons in stage directing in the 90s came from watching practitioners like Jacob do his thing at rehearsals I sneaked into. The man was known for his impressive productions that made him rather exclusive at the height of his practice. As a student then, I couldn’t afford his shows, but I mingled with audiences at the lobby for free. I’d see suits and satin streaming out of Jacob’s shows at the Alliance Francaise going oui oui and think– sheesh, this man is the sh!t.

Years I spent later apprenticing with Broadway directors like Charles Randolfph Wright and Tazwell Thomson, and directing my own plays on stages in the US made me realize one truth: those like Jacob from whom I first observed the wizardry of stage arts in Nairobi made me the artist that I am. Others simply built on that foundation.

Here I was, more years later, back to the stomping grounds of Nairobi, working with one of the greats in a country that swallows the best of us– first a toe, then a foot, soon a leg, then one day the whole person. You know this because when you meet them for tea and chapati on Muindi Mbingu Street, they are a shell of who they were. There’s a light that has gone out. But you see them still, for the gurus they’ll always be. That is why I listened.

He said to me- Forget the illusion. Make the actors visible to the audience as they pull the platform. Let them struggle with its human weight as the oath booms through. This is their burden. They carry it every elections cycle.

And that’s how everyone who came to see the show saw a people pulling their presidential burden through the years on wobbly wheels– a precarious, dangerous, backbreaking technical stunt that fit the story perfectly. That was the genius of Jacob Otieno.

We call your name! Travel well, griot. Enter stage-center, to the place where the ancestors have pulled you in to rest.

Photo credit: Eric Wanyama. A rehearsal scene from “Puma” (2015) at Kenya Cultural Centre incorporating Kenya National Theatre -KNT.

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