Kenya National Theatre September 2018

Reviewer: Diana Lee-Smith

Taking part in songs, dance and stories with larger than life animal characters coming from all directions and surrounding the audience makes Tinga Tinga Tales a thrilling show for children and adults. It has played to packed houses in Nairobi and was set to play in New York in October 2018, where it would be the opener for a festival at the New Victory Theatre.  Let’s hope it would be just as big a success with American audiences as it has been for Kenyans.

Hearing many words and ideas mentioned first in Kiswahili and then in English, I thought at first that might put New Yorkers off, but then I remembered the Lion King and thought again. Kenya – and its culture – is hitting the international arts scene and Tinga Tinga Tales is making it happen.

Eric Wainaina – billed as ‘Monkey, Composer and Music Director’ could be seen after the show playing with children from the audience in the car park. Along with producer Sheba Hirst and ‘Creator, Writer and Director’ Claudia Lloyd, energetic, creative and irrepressible Eric deserves much of the credit for a successful show. But then so do the rest of the cast, the band and the production team. This wealth of Kenyan talent explodes on stage with great lighting, set design and special effects, plus audience participation – including being sprayed with water and helping create the sound effects.

Apart from being the monkey who sings throughout, Eric is accompanied by other great Kenyan singers, like Atemi Oyunga, the soul and jazz star Hippo. Alvan Gatitu plays the Chameleon, his singing and acting providing a transformation in character, sound and music.  Raay, the Elephant likewise takes us through narrative transformations with amazing musical skill. Those are the superlative voices. And they are wonderful actors as well, to match veteran Academy Award-winning Eddy Kimani (Lion), and Elsaphan Njora Kanyoro (the Tortoise who doubles as a commentator throughout). No less impressive are the newer singers and actors, Karimi Wambui Wamai, Nyokabi Macharia and Kendi Nkonge.

The story is moved briskly forward and children waited to see what would happen to the unlucky Giraffe (budding star Nyokabi Macharia), Tortoise and Chameleon. The Hippo and Lion love story line is distinctly American soap-opera in style as opposed to the African-inspired animal stories, but diva Atemi Oyunga pulls it off with her great voice and matches Eddy Kimani’s powerful on-stage presence. The program notes describe her as ‘a mix of Miriam Makeba and Aretha Franklin’. Indeed.

This is not your average stage production. It doubles as a social enterprise promoting and supported by social and environmental initiatives. This show cheers you up and makes you glad to be Kenyan all over again. The oft-repeated refrain, ‘Everybody is Somebody’ radiates hope and we depart smiling.

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