TDPS Graduate Student seeks reclusive playwright, finds new meaning in play to be performed in October

When Joshua Williams proposed staging Ebrahim N. Hussein’s Kinjeketile at UC Berkeley in October 2011, he knew that it would be the start of an interesting journey. Not only had the play never been performed outside of Africa, but the playwright himself had not been heard from in years, having stepped down from his university position and retiring into semi-seclusion after having been arrested and beaten as a result of his political activities. As Joshua had some questions about the translation and about the play in general, he made it his mission to track down the reclusive playwright in order to discuss the play with him.

Journeying to Tanzania, Joshua searched for weeks, before finally coming up with a clue – a rumor that Hussein was living in a rough-and-tumble working-class neighborhood in Dar Es Salaam and known only to certain locals. Finally, with only one day left on his trip, Joshua was able to make contact, and had the privilege of meeting with the groundbreaking playwright. Mr. Hussein’s warmth and excitement for the project will carry over into Joshua’s production, to be staged in October in Zellerbach room 7.

Kinjeketile was originally written to provoke Tanzanian audiences into seeing a national hero in a new light. The historical Kinjeketile Ngwale was a mystic and medium responsible for inciting the Maji Maji rebellion in 1905. When encouraging the local tribes to unite and revolt against the German colonial empire, Kinjeketile instructed his followers to anoint themselves with holy water to protect themselves from bullets. Though the revolt would ultimately fail, it had far-reaching consequences including the beginning of the struggle to end colonialism, planting the seed of the modern state of Tanzania, which would come about with independence in 1961. As a figure of historical importance to the nation, Kinjeketile was lionized as a revolutionary and visionary leader. Hussein’s play asks whether Kinjeketile was in control of the revolution, whether he had ever really seen the vision attributed to him, whether he was wrong in his interpretation of the vision, or if his intent had always been to have the deaths of his followers on his hands. Kinjeketile is charismatic, but that charisma leads his people into disaster: When captured and offered a chance to recant his vision and save the lives of his followers, he does not.

Mr. Hussein now sees parallels in modern times. “He mentioned that we are seeing echoes of that same revolutionary conundrum in African politics today,” says Williams. “The central question of Kinjeketile is still relevant: what is charisma, and how far does it take us? Hussein was very interested in Libya, where the once-revolutionary Qadhafi has become part and parcel of the oligarchy he set himself against. Is it heroism or hubris that distinguishes leaders like Qadhafi and Kinjeketile? He was also interested in South Sudan, where a new nation has just come into being without any infrastructure whatsoever. What causes people to value freedom so highly that they will voluntarily enter into a situation of almost inevitably increased hardship?” Joshua also notes that similarities don’t end in Africa. “Look at Harold Camping here in Oakland. He insisted that the Rapture would occur in May – and then, as far as we know, it didn’t. What does a charismatic leader do when reality doesn’t match his vision?”

Joshua realizes that these questions will not be completely answered by the play, and acknowledges that this is intentional. “Hussein is a master of a technique called fumbo, which is common in Swahili poetry,” he explains. “Fumbo is all about creating riddles that are never solved, and that therefore require their audience to supply their own answers and decide for themselves what the text really means.” He relishes the idea of staging the play at UC Berkeley. “This production of Kinjeketile is just the latest chapter of this department’s history of doing work on and from the African diaspora, from the beginning of Black Theater Workshop all those years ago on through to the conference Professor Cole convened on African and Afro-Caribbean performance in 2008 and At Buffalo last semester. I’m really very honored and glad to be contributing in my own small way to that incredible legacy and ensuring that the work continues.”

Kinjeketile opens on October 22 at 8pm and runs through October 22, 2011.
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