All Kenya's a Stage: When Shakespeare Youth Festival LA Taught Drama to Young People in Africa, the Learning Went in All Directions

By Packett, Kila | American Theatre, January-February 2020 | Go to article overview

All Kenya's a Stage: When Shakespeare Youth Festival LA Taught Drama to Young People in Africa, the Learning Went in All Directions


Packett, Kila, American Theatre


THERE WAS A CHILL IN THE AIR WHEN I STEPPED outside the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. It was mid-August, and night had fallen with a crisp energy that was completely new to me. Groups of Africans were huddled by the exit to greet loved ones, haggle for cab fares, or to guide safari-clad tourists to their vans. Meanwhile, I was an actor headed to a remote village to teach Shakespeare. Curious eyes were gazing at me. Men rushed to me with trinkets to sell and prices to bargain. I was a foreigner in a new city, and yet I felt incredibly at ease.

How did I get here? I can trace the path back to one evening in 2012 in a stark room at the Mark Taper Annex at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. Fresh from New York City, I was attending a teaching artist workshop, where I met two actors who ran the Shakespeare Youth Festival, a program of the Los Angeles Drama Club. Within two weeks I found myself in South Los Angeles co-directing 24 children in The Tempest as part of the festival's year-round effort to bring the Bard to young people in Watts, East L.A., and Hollywood. Their efforts have in more recent years expanded to Mexico, Botswana, and, last summer, Kenya.

Earlier in 2019 we received an invitation from Dr. Auma Obama to bring our program to her home country. Just three months later, six teaching artists and four teenage Shakespeare nerds were on a plane to Nairobi. We then journeyed 250 miles deeper into the heart of Kenya. We passed the Great Rift Valley, uncelebrated towns teeming with life, and ancient rock formations, until we arrived in a place called Nyang'oma Kogelo, the birthplace of Barack Obama Sr. and his daughter Auma, half-sister to former President Barack Obama.

Auma Obama had a vision for her hometown: to create a platform for disadvantaged children that would allow them to discover their strengths and realize their full potential to live independent and successful lives. In 2009, the Sauti Kuu Foundation (Kiswahili for "powerful voices") was born. As part of their programming, every summer for one week, 100 children aged 10 to 18 are invited to board on the campus grounds and participate in workshops on such subjects as first aid, woodworking, sewing, sports, and horticulture. This year, Dr. Auma (as they call her) wanted to develop the drama component of SKF, hence her invitation.

In transit, I practiced my limited Kiswahili: "habari," a more formal "hello," as opposed to "jambo," which is what they say to tourists, and "nina furaha kukutana na wewe," or "nice to meet you," which proved to be a challenging tongue twister. English and Kiswahili are Kenya's official languages, but there are a total of 68 languages spoken by different regional tribes. Where we were heading in western Kenya, roughly three million speak Luo, including Dr. Auma and her Sauti Kuu students.

We poured out of the van after a seven-hour drive and were overtaken by local attention. Some boys were playing soccer and invited us to jump in. I scored a goal, luckily! Red dirt caked the white soles of my Adidas shoes and sweat ran down my face. Here I was, 10,000 miles from home, engaging with an amazing group of strangers on a soccer field made possible by President Obama's sister.

We were greeted by local staff, who made us feel like honored guests, taking our hands with strong eye contact and guiding us to a circle of chairs where we would all share ourselves. There were offerings of mandazi, a fried bread snack, and delicious lemongrass tea. We met with Dr. Auma, field projects coordinator Dan Joshua Oduor, sport coordinator Lucy Akinyi Otieno, communications intern Kennedy Omondi, and other SKF team members. We played theatre games as an ice breaker and toured the vegetable garden.

The chosen theme for our gathering was "All the world's a stage--How will you play your part?" We were to use Shakespeare's words to inspire and empower the students of Sauti Kuu, culminating in a performance for the village at the end of the week. …

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