‘Time waits for no military man!’. Thus, on a punctual note, Subira, A New Musical opened on Friday, 30th of July 2021 at Kenya National Theatre at exactly 6pm as indicated on the posters. For the next 3 hours and 15 minutes, theatre patrons were treated to one of the greatest original musical works of art to have ever been staged at the Kenya Cultural Centre.

The musical, written by Ugandan playwright Adong Judith and directed by herself and passionate Kenyan theatre actor and director, Gilbert Lukalia, plunges the audience into an action-packed romantic journey told expertly through music and witty dialogue.

Built on a military background, one cannot help but stare in awe when the amazing lights design comes on to reveal the artistic detail that went into the designing and building the stage for this performance. At the foreground is the orchestra pit from which blares live music as played by a professional team of instrumentalists from Kenya and Uganda.

As we finally sit back and the show kicks off, we take a journey back in time to post-independence Kenya. Army recruiters move from village to village, recruiting men who qualify to join the army. From all corners of the country, the army gets its pick. It is here that lifetime friends get to work together with other strangers. New friends will be made, old friends will become foes, and lifetime bonds will be created.

Kenya's Nice Githinji stars as Subira alongside Zimbabwe's Mundawara Shaun as Lukalia (Photos by Ignacio Hennigs)
Kenya’s Nice Githinji stars as Subira alongside Zimbabwe’s Mundawarara Shaun as Lukalia (Photos by Ignacio Hennigs)

When the excited recruits finally alight from the army truck into the city of Nairobi, it is Afande Mo, a commander in the Kenyan army played by Gilbert Lukalia, who orientates the them.

He advises them to have the best night of their lives because what is to follow is a year of intensive training where boys will be turned into men. Afande Mo has his set of numbered lessons and all recruits will do well to remember each one of them. With most of them landing in the city for the first time, the recruits seem lost but Afande Mo is kind enough to point them in the right direction where they will sate their manly thirsts.

As the men rush to a night of pleasure, Lukalia (Mundawarara Shaun from Zimbabwe), a recruit from Kakamega, is hesitant to join them. And no amount of convincing from his childhood friend, Alusa (Charles Ouda from Kenya) will change this. Not until he posts a letter back home. You see Lukalia left a beautiful girl back in Kakamega with a promise that not even time will change his love for her. He’s determined to come back and marry her and start a family with his sweetheart, Subira (Nice Githinji from Kenya) after the military training, to grow old together into two old fools as the first number in the musical goes. Alusa made no such promises to no one so off to the club he goes to join the rest of the recruits at the famous Florida 2000 pub. There is plenty on offer and boys including Kihara (Aswani Ken from Kenya), Kipkesio (Masaba Roger from Uganda) make the best of their last night as free men by partying unfettered, Lukalia who joins them later is moderate and even wards away advances from the ladies of the night in plenty supply at the club. The ladies are well represented by Kola Agnes (the bar owner), Mukandutiye Sybil Colette, Akinyi Fulky Agnes, Mukandie Amelia, and Babu Sharon.

The night is short. It is now morning and time to get to the training ground.

On the first day Afande Mo takes his crew through a grueling session and they regret overindulging the night before. By the end of the first drills with such energetic yet beautiful choreography supported by the shirtless men’s declaration of “I’m soldier” and quick acknowledgments of “Not yet!”, the first day is over. Ground rules have been set and what is to follow is a year of training that even the strongest of men buckle under. The men attain fitness but sadly, not all make it through the training. One of the recruits, Situmo played by Thuita Christopher (Kenya) dies at the end of one of the drills. Situmo’s death awakens the ugly demon of tribalism as Alusa accuses another comrade Chumo (Neville Ignatius from Kenya) of murdering him because according to him (Alusa), the Kalenjins and Kikuyus think other people’s lives don’t matter. Tribal lines are drawn among the Luhyas and Kikuyus. And before Afande Mo shuts this down with his “I will not have an army of tribes” the following day, the men will have you reaching for your tissue as they sing-cry the tearjerking When One Person Dies led by the older Gituku (Andre Muthure from Kenya) who is joined by Maina (Gakenga Dadson from Kenya), Othieno (Byamugisha Gilbert from Uganda) and Lukalia (Mundawarara Shaun from Zimbabwe) to mourn their fallen comrade.

After months of training, it is finally pass out day. But, instead of Kakamega to his hope, his Subira, Lukalia is headed to Gilgil because the rumours of a coup mean that the men are needed at their posts right away. He doesn’t know this yet but he’ll never hold his Subira in his arms again.

<em>Subira, A New Musical</em> written by Ugandan playwright Adong Judith and directed by herself and Kenya’s Gilbert Lukalia (Photos by Ignacio Hennigs)

Subira, A New Musical written by Ugandan playwright Adong Judith and directed by herself and Kenya’s Gilbert Lukalia (Photos by Ignacio Hennigs)

Caught in the chaos of the coup that overthrew the Kenyan government for just six hours, his woes are just beginning and it will be a long time before Lukalia is free to join Subira to start a family of their own as he promised. But the joy of the suit clad man and his melodic songs of Subira Blues on the bus to Kakamega will leave you heartbroken. Life, it seems is eager to throw all sorts of punches his way and he has no choice but to shelve even the best laid of his plans.

Subira, A New Musical, is an emotional journey that one is taken through. What were we promised though before the show came live on stage? We had been promised a great show with good music and a talented cast. What was delivered? It was definitely more than we had been promised. A multinational cast and crew has created a performance that is not only entertaining but it also offers great insights into Kenyan history. The lyrics to the songs also written by Adong Judith, finding themselves into the hands of music director and co-composer Kaz Kasozi from Uganda are a collectors’ gem. No doubt, the actors do not let them down. They lend their voices to produce music that keeps one wanting to applaud and sing along throughout the show. The flawless choreography must definitely make it worth the while for choreographer Jean M. Kerr from the United States of America to join this team. Light designer Dan Ozminkowski also from the USA must have spent sleepless nights to create the atmosphere that we all found ourselves in. The set design by Nancy Aluoch full with the Kakakmega crying rock, the gold and black canvas that carries the Kenya Defense Force  symbol bring the story to life. Oh, did I mention the lanterns hanging up on stage that create a fantastical aesthetic feel to this well performed musical? The production team certainly delivered more than had promised and for this Co- Producer Ssebagala Andrew Lwanga Jedidiah from Uganda must be really proud.

The famous Bus to Kakamega in Subira, A New Musical, (Photos by Ignacio Hennings))

The famous Bus to Kakamega in Subira, A New Musical written by Ugandan playwright Adong Judith and directed by herself and Kenya’s Gilbert Lukalia (Photos by Ignacio Hennigs)

As with any other production a few mishaps make the show even more real. Such were seen as one actor lost his gun backstage and had to spend quite some time during the training routine without it. The headgear for one of the actresses fell off during her number but she carried on without skipping a bit. However, only a hawk-eyed observer would notice some of these mishaps and they in no way dulled the high-octane performance.

Nairobi is still under 10pm curfew and I noticed some people get uneasy as the show went past 9pm. They however stayed and left in a hurry immediately the show ended.

Silent Voices Uganda, Gilb’art productions, and their partners have indeed exceeded our expectations in staging Subira, A New Musical. This is despite it being amidst a pandemic that has badly affected live theatre productions. Audiences have no reason to worry though as all measures are taken to adhere to the ministry of health protocols to combat Covid-19.

Subira, A New Musical produced by Silent Voices Uganda and Gilb’art productions at the Kenya National Theatre (Photos by Ignacio Hennigs)

Subira, A New Musical written by Ugandan playwright Adong Judith and directed by herself and Kenya’s Gilbert Lukalia (Photos by Ignacio Hennigs)

The shows will continue every day and there are 2 performances slated for each day until 7th August (2pm and at 6pm). The final show will be on 8thAugust at 6pm. Tickets are still available (Advisable to book early because of limited sitting capacity due to Covid-19 restrictions).

Subira, A New Musical is a show to watch multiple times. It was truly, under-promised and over-delivered.

This article originally appeared on The African Theatre Magazine on August 6, 2021, and has been reposted with permission. To read the original article, please click here.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.