New faces in theatre: meet playwright, dramaturge, theatre scholar Mūkonzi wā Mūsyoki

They’re young, bright, and unstoppably creative. And, pandemic be damned, their adaptable, flexible talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. In this 12thnight series you’ll meet some of E-town’s sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, is already having an impact in this challenging age — and will have more when the theatre doors are open again. 

Meet playwright/ dramaturge/ theatre scholar Mūkonzi wã Mūsyoki. The series so far has included  designer/scenographer Elise CM Jason, techno whiz Bradley King, and triple-threat Chariz Faulmino, sketch and improv star Sydney Campbell

Playwright, dramaturge, theatre scholar Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

MŪKONZI WĀ MŪSYOKI, dramaturge, playwright, theatre scholar

If you ventured out in Strathcona on a freezing October night to experience a series of live (!) five-minute one-on-one outdoor encounters in unexpected locations, you’d have followed your phone app to a little exit staircase outside a church door.

The locale was meaningful. We met a troubled young man (David Madawo), mid-crisis, trying to unravel his complicated nexus of grief, loss, guilt, and spiritual alienation. In Dreams, Desires and Disguises, one of the octet of original five-minute solo plays in Workshop West’s season premiere Here There Be Night, we were seeing the work of Mūkonzi wā Mūsyoki.

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“A very personal piece,” says the thoughtful playwright/ dramaturge/ director, who’s from Kenya and brings with him, along with an accounting degree, two African languages (Kiswahili and Kikãmbã) and a formidable and elegant command of English. “My journey into disconnection with my Christian upbringing…. Very heavy for me,” he says of the piece. A world away from his home and his childhood in the Kenyan countryside outside Nairobi, Mūsyoki was remembering his mother and “the Christian way” from which he’s departed. “If you lose someone, how do you retain that memory?”

A play in five minutes? “At first it was 16 or 20 pages,” Mūsyoki says of the ruthless trim required. “It’ll be a full-length play in future.”

We have academia to thank for the arrival here four years ago of Mūsyoki, a specialist in post-colonial African theatre who came to get a master’s degree at the U of A. Mission accomplished. He’s now one of four international students — including one from Botswana and two from Ghana — working towards U of A doctorates  in “performance studies.”

Since 2016 Mūsyoki has been not only a playwright, but a rising star in a behind-the-scenes line of theatre work that, as a job description, eludes easy definition in English: dramaturgy. And, as a black African artist at this moment in our collective history on this continent, his outsider’s perspective on the colonial inheritance of theatre practice is well-timed, to say the least, to offer insight. Dramaturgy, from the Mūsyoki perspective, has a wider embrace than storyboarding Act II of draft 14 of a script. It’s all about “building a community of collaborators,” and “looking at different modes of creation….” And he feels particularly aligned with Indigenous creators.

The question of “protocols” resonates with Mūsyoki. “It’s one of the things I learned from (influential Kenyan writer/ researcher) Ngūgī wa Thiong’o. When you move out of institutions, universities, and go out to the community, you find where stories exist…. Moving theatre out of a building as an institution allows accessibility to different people.” Confining theatre to institutional buildings, he says, “limits the sense of indigenous performance and creation.”

As a country kid in Kenya, Mūsyoki’s first experience of theatre was the “skits” organized in the church for every festival. “I got my first spark of interest in dramaturgy from that…. looking at a Bible story, extracting something, and staging it within a local setting.” The entertainment value of enacting stories wasn’t lost on him: “we managed to teach  religious lessons without preaching them.”

As a linguistics and English literature undergrad at Kenyatta University in the big city, Mūsyoki’s entry point into drama was the page not the stage, starting with the classics: Shakespeare (Macbeth was first; “I had no idea what was going on. I was still learning my English,” he laughs). Greek tragedy. Ibsen, especially An Enemy of the People, with its radical thrust about the social price tag on a truth-teller’s zeal.

The African writers who particularly engaged him in his post-colonial theatre research, says Mūkyosi, include such leading figures as the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, the Kenyan writer/scholar Francis Imbuga, Uganda’s John Ruganda, and Ngūgī Thiong’o. All wrote in a variety of forms, including theatre.

Mūkonzi wa Mūsyoki.

Since his arrival here, Mūsyoki has not only been a scholar (with a string of articles to his credit), but a theatre practitioner, out in the community, much in demand as a dramaturge — from Workshop West (where he was dramaturge-in-residence for a year) to the Citadel (he worked on The Color Purple and was much struck by the rarity of an all-black production) to Victoria School of the Arts. He’s brought his outreach and dramaturgy skills to bear on premieres, including Conni Massing’s Matara, Colleen Murphy’s Bright Burning, Cheryl Foggo’s John Ware Reimagined.

The latter, his first professional gig in Edmonton theatre outside the ivory tower, “put a lot of things in perspective for me about the place of black people in Alberta,” he says. “Race is an issue in Alberta; it was a bit concerning for someone moving to Alberta….”

“I was a bit shocked really” that the history of black settlers in Alberta was so little known to many, indeed most, people here. “A lot of conversation originated out of that; it’s very inspiring to keep that conversation going.…”

“I’ve learned so much!” he says happily. “Particularly from Indigenous scholarship in Canada.” His mentor has been the Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams (Thunderstick, Cafe Daughter), the first Indigenous playwright to earn an M.A. in playwriting from the U of A.  “And I’ve gotten a lot of mentorship as well from Vern Thiessen,” star Canadian playwright and the former Workshop West artistic director.

Mūsyoki has a new play ready for production at the U of A’s upcoming annual New Works festival (dates TBA). He describes Chanzo (“source” in Swahili”) as an experiment in multi-lingual storytelling (English, Swahili, and an Indigenous language called Sheng, a Swahili slang “spoken by youth to resist the colonial proficiency of English.” The three-actor production is an international affair, with a director from Korea and an assistant director from Venezuela. “It’s about going back home and grief and family; it’s been so much on my mind at the moment,” Mūkonzi says of the pandemic isolation.

Another Mūsyoki play-in-progress is Fumbo, a “reflection from my society where there’s been a lot of recurring domestic violence in some communities.” First workshopped at the 2018 Chinook Series, “it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve written, so it’s taken a while.”

We won’t be seeing a screwball comedy from him any time soon. All his plays have a dark, serious palette to them, Mūkyosi acknowledges. His very first, The Golden Handshake, “was about homosexuality from a Kenyan perspective. A very heavy play…. I’m always drawn to plays that ask questions that I find hard to reconcile with.”

Meanwhile Mūkyosi leads Workshop West’s BIPOC “creative incubator” every second Wednesday, “to explore all kinds of things … ideas that inform our creation, alternate forms of storytelling, looking beyond ordinary notions, drama informed by Indigenous dramaturgies….” Creating space, challenging received notions of what constitutes a point of departure for creating work…. it’s all part of the mandate.

Land acknowledgment (and “moving beyond saying into doing”) has a profound impact on Mūsyoki’s thinking. “He’s invited participants to consider their journeys to the place, the physical here and now they’re speaking from. For the first session, he had them each bring in an object with which they have a relationship in their life, to narrate the history of both object and relationship. He brought a scarf belonging to his mother.

Four years of Canada, winters included, have been “enriching,” he says. They have not, however, entirely prepared Mūsyoki for the meteorological trials of last week. “I’ve been building my tolerance. But I don’t think I’m quite there yet.”

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