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July 31, 2018, 10:51 a.m.
Reporting & Production

From a beloved blog to one sold-out show after another at a national theater, history gets an anti-colonialist retelling

“Owaahh had this blog where readers come together around this internet fireplace. What if we made that fireplace a physical place? Would people actually show up to listen to history?” (The answer was yes.)

To hear the creators behind this series of sold-out plays tell it, the shows were always meant for the stage.

“It sounded like a joke at first,” the Kenyan writer Morris Kiruga told me over a series of WhatsApp messages over the past few months. “But using several unofficial polls (such as a Twitter poll on how much people were willing to pay), we realized there was an actual audience for performance-based history now more than ever.” Kiruga also writes under the name Owaahh, the title of his niche Kenyan history and current affairs site that covers stories of people, cultural flashpoints, and political events through a lens of challenging traditional, often colonialist narratives. The site, now eight years old, had always been rigorously researched — archives, interviews, reporting — and vividly written. (See: What happened to the two moon rocks Kenya received from the Apollo 11 and 17 space missions? Where are the women who went to war for independence? And listicles, too: 7 More Absurd Stories from Kenyan History. 7 Most Elaborate Cons ever pulled off in Kenya by Foreigners.) This should be a movie, readers would tell him.

“I kept telling him, we should make a play!” said Bryan Ngartia, a Nairobi-based performer and writer, one of the original people who pushed to turn Owaahh’s stories into live performances, in the vein of Pop-Up Magazine. Ngartia and his collaborator, the actor Abu Sense, whom he knew through Kenya’s spoken word scene and also through their day jobs in advertising, kicked around ideas, shopped around a television show, and poured over Owaahh’s published stories and the ones he decided not to run on the blog. “Owaahh had this blog where readers come together around this internet fireplace. What if we made that fireplace a physical place? Would people actually show up to listen to history?”

By 2017, Ngartia and Abu Sense began focusing on creating the first version of Too Early for Birds (a nod to the initial title of the blog, Too Late for Worms), throwing their own savings behind it and leaning on their network and their friends (the show’s first director was a university friend; she’s ended up directing every show since).

“We listed all the stories that really excited us — the what-the-hell stories, the did-they-actually-do-that stories, the that’s-crazy stories. We started with those stories. We had a short list of 16 stories we could start turning into stage stories,” Ngartia said. “The one thing we were very sure about was how we wanted to tell them. We didn’t want it to be a high school lecture. We wanted to tell them the way we speak, in the language Kenyans might use on Twitter and in the streets. We wanted to see how we could introduce running jokes and memes, and connect what happened 120 years ago to what’s happening in our country right now.”

Several of Owaahh’s pieces eventually became the basis for multiple runs of Too Early for Birds at the Kenya National Theatre over the course of the past year. The first show went up in May of 2017. All performances sold out (the national theater has limited seating capacity, at around 350). That happened again with subsequent shows, centered around different historical themes, in June, September, and this January, each featuring five to six individual acts, around two of which are expanded versions of Owaahh’s posts.

“The plays have definitely raised the brand, especially by showing the potential of one form of art to directly influence another,” Owaahh said. “It is a symbiosis really, where Too Early for Birds begun as an experiment inspired by my blog but has become this massive brand by its own right in just a little over a year.”

“The response has been a combination of factors. The fact that Owaahh had been giving people good stories, and that a lot of people had seen Abu and me perform and I think liked what we’d been doing before and were interested in what the result of such a collaboration would be. And then Kenyans on Twitter have this really tight community — once they see something they like, they come out to support it,” Ngartia said. “The audience that started from Twitter, mostly, has sustained. Many those people keep coming back, keep asking for more. I don’t want to answer any more questions about when the next show is coming out, OK?!”

The most recent show, titled “Brazen,” was written, produced, performed, and promoted by an all-female team, focused on the women’s stories that were still largely untold in previous editions of Too Early for Birds. Brazen wrapped up its run last weekend.

The core team for all these productions is small, starting with Abu Sense and Ngartia and Owaahh as a lead researcher (with the exception of the latest show, “Brazen”: “We had the privilege of watching other people get stressed out and pull their hair out!”). Teams then swell to upwards of about 20 as the performance date comes around. The process is rigorous from start to finish, beginning with Owaahh’s articles, which spanned longreads, listicles, and short hits.

“Extensive research is a tedious and absolutely frustrating venture, considering the great efforts to hide or discard historical recollections and material by the power-holders,” Abu Sense said. “[W]e submit all our text to a band of editors and fact-checkers, as well as making our research material available to the public for corrections and inquisitions. History here is fragile and we’d like to treat it with respect and care.”

“We’ve raided the McMillan Library, the Kenya National Archives, where we made a lifelong friend with one of the workers there,” Ngartia laughed.

Too Early for Birds funds itself through ticket sales; Ngartia and Abu Sense both have multiple side hustles to stay afloat (Owaahh runs advertising and promoted content on the site, and also freelances elsewhere). But:

“We’re going to crack it soon by laying out structures. One of our solutions is building an artist management system within Too Early for Birds that will dispatch legal and financial services to our own troupe. If this experiment is successful, we’ll expand it to the larger mass. Hopefully it will work out!” Abu said.

“We’ve been uploading some of stories previous shows on YouTube for the people who couldn’t come, or people who can’t physically make it to the shows. Then we’re planning on podcast series, mostly for the good stories that we had to chop from the scripts. We’ve also been playing with turning these stories into comic books, especially as a supplement for kids, to give them history in an interesting fun way,” Ngartia said. “I’m just telling you this list as a way of keeping ourselves in check.”

POSTED     July 31, 2018, 10:51 a.m.
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