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History of Kenyan Theatre

This write up follows on the heels of a presentation on the history of theatre in Kenya and the paper will briefly look at precolonial, colonial and postcolonial history of theatre in the East African country. Theatre is unarguably one of the cultural elements that best exemplifies Africa. According to Diakhaté and Eyoh (2017)theatre is at the crossroads of the sacred and the profane, orality and the written word, of inner roots and external adjuncts. It is a product of a deposit of diverse forms rooted in Africa’s traditions while, at the same time, it continues to assimilate foreign theatrical traditions, especially those of Europe. In some quarters African theatre is evolving. Africa had its very own forms of dramatic expression and to understand them, one must banish all notions of theatre as it is thought of in the European and Western context. European and Western theatre is dependent on text, auditoriums, technology and on box-office returns. However, African tradition has no specific theatrical system, instead, it has a series of functions, which themselves were modified under colonial influence and which gradually moved away from their roots, though they were never eliminated completely.

According to Wikipedia the term Theatre is a collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers, typically actors or actresses, to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place, often a stage. Theatre is an art concerned almost exclusively with live performances in which the action is precisely planned to create a coherent and significant sense of drama (Guthrie, et al, 2018). Theatre also includes displays of actions in a way that creates suspense. These actions are representations of events in the real, or supernatural world before an audience. These actions can be forms of ritual, dance and other performance arts. Theatre also refers to a space reserved for dramatic performances.

The functioning of society itself most directly dictates artistic expression in African societies whose theatre is rooted in myths, rites and folk celebrations, which externalize the beliefs, passions and concepts that preoccupy any given group. Early Africans never invented a generic term to designate these representations, rather, they lived it. Theatrical art in Africa is very ancient while its origins are lost in prehistory. African theatre was and is part of every day in public places and at home. The history of theatre in one African country mirrors that of another African with differences only in the local references to localised performances. For example, the Kenyans dowry payment has always been elaborate and systematic, the following steps must be carefully observed in order to the letter. First kumenya mucii which is getting to know the brides home followed by kuhandai thigi which means planting a branch of a tree and finally kuracia which is dowry payment. These practices predate the colonisation of Kenya.

The major problem with discussing Kenyan theatre history in relation to colonialism is that Kenya was colonised since 7th Century AD. Kenya was originally colonised by the Persians, Asians, Portuguese, Arabs and finally the British at different times of its existence. The British were the last colonisers from 1895 until 1963 when Kenya obtained Independence. Prior to colonisation, the Kenyan people performed various theatrical acts that ranged from performance forms such as vave(short recitals), ngano(tales), wimbo(songs), methali(proverbs) gungu(riddling conversational poems) and other modes of mashairi(poetry).

Theatre in ancient Africa was clearly found in such elements as ritual gesture and communal celebrations by large rural publics where these forms first emerged; artistic forms that synthesize spectacle and the spoken word, rhythm and dance, forms that integrate many modes of expression. It is to rituals, dances, masquerades, storytelling and folk celebrations with all their theatrical elements, then, that one must look for such an African definition of theatre.

Most colonisers banned native performances in favour of their imported performances and this contributed to theatrical diversity that abounds today in Kenya. The Omani Arabs are credited with importing taarab music (love songs) to the coast of East Africa when Seyyid Barghash was the Sultan. Bargash is said to have invited some Egyptian musicians to perform in his court in 1870. He was so thrilled by their performance of the taarab that he decided to send a Zanzibari musician, Ibrahim Muhammed, to study it in Cairo. When Muhammed returned to Zanzibar, he formed a taarab orchestra.The British colonisation of the 20th century took a toll on African theatre, the British brought Christianity to convert the locals in a quest for supremacy in the guise of civilisation. The converted locals abandoned some of their traditional practices, ceremonies and rites in favour of those of their new way of life. Those that survived became more inclined to religion.

As in other colonies, the Europeans in colonial Kenya strove to build enclaves that resembled their homes in Europe. In performance, proscenium theatres were built for the entertainment of settlers, administrators, soldiers and other European groups living in the colony. Theatre would also be staged in sports clubs that were found in all towns with significant populations of Europeans. These were the spaces where amateur theatre groups that were derived from settler communities and people working in colonial government offices mostly performed.The earliest known performance space in Nairobi and possibly in Kenya was the Railway Club in Nairobi. It was started in a wood and iron building along the White House Road in 1901 as the Railway Institute. In 1912, it was renamed Nairobi Social Club and moved to its current location on Haile Selassie Avenue. According to the first rules of the club, only English subjects were eligible for membership.This became the trend for all other theatre spaces that were established by Europeans in colonial Kenya as other races were not allowed to patronise them.

As early as 1912, even before the First World War, Nairobi had a fully equipped theatre. This was the Theatre Royal that was built by Mr Medicks and was situated on the then Delamere Avenue, now Kenyatta Avenue. It had a seating capacity of about 350 people, though other sources, like Annabel Maule in Theatre near the Equator (2004) put it at 511.Just after World War Two it was converted to a garrison theatre. The building still exists today as Cameo cinema on Kenyatta Avenue.The other theatre spaces that were built in Nairobi in the 1920s and the 1930s were Capitol Theatre, The Empire and Princes’ Theatre later re-named The Playhouse.These theatres were imposing buildings, constructed in the latest British architectural manner.

Like many other theatres in British colonies, these theatres were converted into cinemas after the WW2 due to poor patronage after most soldiers returned to Europe. From 1946 until 1949, plays would be staged in cinema halls, sports clubs and school halls since Nairobi had no theatre-house purposely built for live performance.

It is critical to note that pre-colonial theatre in eastern and central Africa was collective, participatory and tuned to the people’s rhythm of life. It came alivein a variety of social and cultural activities such as birth, initiation, hunting, marriage and death-related activities. With the advent of the colonisers, most of the indigenous theatre forms were suppressed during the colonial era which denigrated the African culture. The denigration of African culture led to direct attacks on indigenous performing arts by colonialism. The missionaries labelled our theatre “paganism and sin.” Economic and political disputes were manifested in cultural reaffirmation. For instance, among the Kikuyu, the tensions surrounding female circumcision were replayed theatrically in central Kenya from 1928 to 1931, through the Muthirigu dances.

Pre-colonial dramatic forms were reactivated during the Mau Mau War of liberation. Formal colonialismmade it imperative that exclusive European social spots be established in major colonial cities such as Mombasa, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Salisbury (now Harare) and Kampala. Consequently, cultural and leisure theatres were created in those areas that had a strong settler community, he says. Permanent theatres such as the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi, the Lusaka Theatre Club, and the Little Theatre Club in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, as symbols of cultural solidarity and group cohesion, were established. The drama performed in the exclusive expatriate clubs were mainly productions from the European classicals and romantic comedies.

Theatre for development is now a common feature in Africa, whilst in the colonial days, this mode of representation tended to be didactic and was geared to the transmission of information on agriculture, primary health care, savings, loans and tax collection. In many cases, colonial lifestyles were parodied in theatre. Significantly, theatre redefined itself in the face of the colonial experience.African playwrights in post-colonial Africa have a strong desire to participate in social change through their art. The Kamiriithu Popular Theatre Project that led to the detention of Kenyan novelist and playwright, Ngugi waThiong’o, set in motion a series of similar experiments in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Tanzania and Uganda. The project used art for the liberation of individuals from social and economic constraints. It can be argued that in the struggle for independence in Southern Africaperforming arts were part and parcel of political liberation.

Kenya National Theatre (KNT) was initially built as a recreational centre for British soldiers during the colonial era. East African literary titans such John Ruganda, and Ngugi waThiong’o have all staged plays there. Ngugi waThiong’o’s KNT plays included The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and NgahiikaNdeenda (‘I Will Marry When I Want’).  Mombasa’s Little Theatre Club was initially a club for Royal Navy sailors after World War II but was later leased out for various functions, including serving as a hospital. In 1952, white settlers leased the space and established The Little Theatre Club for their own entertainment. Performances ranged from stage plays to choreographed dances, and jazz legend Louis Armstrong even performed there in 1960. The Little Theatre has a chequered history. It nearly faded into insignificance in the last decade but, luckily, the government recently designated it a national monument.

The South Asian community in Kenya is also culturally active, staging numerous Hindi-Gujarati productions that include dance, poetry, music, and acting. In 2017, the Kenyan Indians were officially recognized by the government as Kenya’s 44th tribe. Recent Kenindian (Kenya-Indian) plays include Pehli Preet (“First Love”) and DhabaktaHaiya (“Throbbing Heart”). Stories of a Dead Lake, which was written by Kenyan Steve Ongeri and was staged at Braeburn School in May 2017, follows the travails of a Hindu widow.

The Kenyan government has taken upon itself to promote theatre through building theatrical buildings and allowing once prohibited literary works into performance. Recently, in 2017, the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, had this to say while commissioning a new theatre, “There are those, also, who had to flee our country so that their artistic expression could thrive. Once again, today, it is with pleasure that we welcome two of them: Professor Ngugi waThiong’o and Professor Micere Mugo. These artists and many more, are the vanguard of Kenya’s recent artistic resurgence.  Both Ngugi and Micere no longer have to live abroad to be the best that they can be.”

Many thespians, especially in Nairobi, are increasingly showing interest in high-quality commercial productions, as opposed to high-school-type acting-for-fun arrangements. For example, in 2010, brothers Peter and Paul Oyier of Sterling Entertainment Productions staged the famous South African musical Sarafina! in Kenya with a local cast, and even brought “Sarafina” herself (South African actress Leleti Khumalo) to the premiere.In 2013 The Sanaa Theatre Awards were launched as Kenya celebrated 50 years of being a republic. The current major problem of the Kenyan theatre is its obsession to foreign plays. There isa lot of adaptation of European works which are tweaked to fuse with localised content, and this conveys a lack of originality (Nderitu, 2017). Many of the shows staged to this day were penned by such foreign playwrights as Ray Cooney (Not Now Darling, Run for Your Wife, Husband for Breakfast, Wife Begins at Forty), Marc Carmoletti (Boeing Boeing) and Derek Benfield (Bedside Manners).

It is quite evident that Kenya’s theatre continues to make a mark on the global arena despite the challenges it faced over the centuries. Kenyan theatre has gone through tremendous onslaught due to conquest subjected to the country since time immemorial as Kenya was always occupied by foreigners such as the Persians, Portuguese, Asians and finally the British. All these settlers had an influence on the survival of theatre. These conquests have also left a mark on the local theatre hence the current thespians have to employ English as the cost of indigenous language, the reason is that they want to be competitive and appeal to a diverse audience.


  1. The Roots of African Theatre Ritual and Orality in the Pre-Colonial Period Accessedfrom: Accessed on 29/10/2018
  2. Wambui, Catherine. Kenyan Wedding Traditions – Kikuyu Culture. Accessed from: Accessed on: 29/10/2018
  3. Wikipedia contributors. Theatre. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. November 27, 2018, 22:31 UTC. Available at: Accessed December 7, 2018.
  4. Kerr, David. 1998. Retracing African theatre history
  5. Nderitu, Alexander. [2017] Kenyan Theatre: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly Accessed from: Accessed on: 06/12/2018
  6. Komu, Rose Wangui. [2016] A History of Kenyan Theatre: The Intersections between Culture and Politics. The University of Leeds.
  7. Tracy C. Davis, Tyrone Guthrie [2018] Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed from: Date: December 06, 2018

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