Rwanda’s first musical to premiere tomorrow
On Wednesday 29 August, the Ishyo Arts Centre stage will witness history with the performance of Rwanda’s first musical, MBOKA.
The production will be directed by Carole Karemera with music by Cecilia Kankonda, and feature original writing and music from Rwandan artists that fuses the genres of theatre, dance, and music.
MBOKA, a free adaptation inspired by Kwame Kwe Armah’s “FIX-UP,” follows the story of a bookstore specialising in the history of the black world which is threatened with closure to make way for a hair salon.
The resulting debate between two generations of activists calls into question the significance of cultural preservation in the face of economic considerations.
While some do not see the practicality of fighting for the memory and contribution of black people to humanity and choose to side with capitalism; others, more thirsty for knowledge and especially recognition, stand for the treasure of knowledge to remain at the heart of the neighbourhood and serve its people.
“MBOKA questions the place of history and culture in a contemporary society,” said Nadia Nkwaya, the project manager at Ishyo, “What is the relation between the heritage that you have and how do you position yourself with that heritage? How can we overcome fear of the past and allow it to inspire us to do better?”
Nkwaya claims that MBOKA, a Lingala word that means “country of origin,” serves a dual purpose: firstly, through workshops, research and creativity, to enrich the knowledge of artists about African historical, political and cultural fields. Secondly, through diverse artistic experiences, to develop a production that challenges perceptions of African identity.
The musical centres on the theme of independence: “independence” understood not only in its literal meaning but also “in dependence”, a new kind of dependence.
“When African countries received their independence, they were supposed to become self-governed but this is not what happened, they went into a new kind of dependence,” said Nkwaya, “And we see it in Rwanda and many other African countries that are still very dependent on the Western world.”
Nkwaya explains that the theme and question of “independence” is particularly compelling in Rwanda where the anniversary of the country’s independence in the 1960s also marks the start of a regime that led to the 1994 genocide.
“For Rwanda, the question of “independence” is difficult. We have this problem of celebrating a so-called revolution that was actually not really a good moment where we can really talk about independence in Rwanda,” said Nkwaya.
The play on words in the musical also encompasses an understanding of “independence” as “interdependence.” Nkwaya explains that the shared experience of dependence leads to interdependence among African countries.
Nkwaya encourages audience members to look beyond the literal when they attend the production.
“There’s always this double-level of understanding. It’s talking about this small library that’s going to close but there is always the larger story of humanity and the history of the black people.”
Perhaps the starkest metaphor lies in how the struggles of the fictional bookstore in MBOKA mirror the real-life plight of Ishyo Arts Centre: Rwanda’s first musical may mark Ishyo’s last.
The arts centre, which was originally due to shut down in May of this year, faces an uncertain future.
“There’s clearly a link in the synopsis. In the play, there is the story of the specific library that is closing which highlights the larger picture of history and the disappearance of culture,” said Nkwaya, “One of the reasons that this musical was interesting to us, aside from the theme of “In Dependence,” was also the questioning of the place of culture in Rwanda as it pertains to Ishyo.”
Nkwaya is confident that audience members will enjoy the production, particularly the rich and dynamic musical score which features segments of South African chants, Kinyarwanda tradition, and even hip-hop. However, she hopes that MBOKA will compel audience members to challenge their perceptions about African identity and the place of culture, particularly in the case of Rwanda.
“What place does our history hold in today’s society?” she asks. “To what extent does our history belong to us? If we are characters of that history, are we also the authors?”
MBOKA: The Musical will be performed at Ishyo Arts Centre in Kacyiru on 29, 30, 31 August at 7:30 pm. Language: French with English subtitles. Entrance fee is Rwf2500.
By Lydia Hsu, The New Times
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