Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s drama explores the issues germane to the transition within Kenya from a colony to an independent nation. Often unabashedly didactic in his plays, Ngugi probes the challenges that young black intellectuals must overcome if they are to alleviate conflicts of tribe, race, and religion that threaten the unity of nationalism. Although his early plays of the 1960’s usually revolve around the qualities of leadership, they also initiate themes concerning the tension between traditional, rural life and modern, urban life; the role of African women in developing a strong nationalism; and resistance to the continuation of colonial practices that perpetuate exploitation in the new country. As these themes evolve in the plays of the next decade, Ngugi’s drama becomes even more decidedly didactic, using an idealized history of Mau Mau, straightforward calls to action, and realistic portrayals of the exploited that are interspersed with pageantry to evoke the grandeur of African culture and the tragedy of colonial history. From his earliest play The Black Hermit to his volatile I Will Marry When I Want, Ngugi gradually shifts his attention from the confusion of a central character beset by conflicts among his loyalties, to the community’s determination to achieve a democratic voice in the political and economic development of the nation.
The Black Hermit
In The Black Hermit, the protagonist, Remi, the only university-educated member of a small tribe, wavers between loyalty to his customs and desires for his own happiness. As the play opens, the villagers await Remi’s return from the city. He is, however, returning to a bewildering array of anxious expectations in the village. Before he left for the city, Remi had fallen in love with Thoni, but, by the time he had mustered courage enough to propose, he learned of his brother’s marriage to her. Six months later, his brother was killed in a car accident; custom required that Remi marry his dead brother’s wife, which he did, hesitantly, believing that Thoni did not love him. Just after the ceremony, he fled to the city. Thoni, however, does love him, and, having remained faithful, she is hopeful of their reconciliation on his return. His mother, Nyobi, expects him to comfort the abandoned Thoni and to start a family; the village priest wants Remi to reaffirm Christianity in the tribe; and the elders, having been convinced by Remi before his departure to support an African party in elections, hope that his return signals his willingness to lead them to power in the government.
Act 2 finds Remi still in the city and entangled in an affair with a white woman, Jane. While he must end the affair before returning, Remi realizes that Jane does not have similar experiences under colonialism and cannot ever understand him, despite her sincere affection. Remi’s belated admission that he has been married to Thoni while carrying on the affair provokes Jane’s anger, and she leaves him, calling into question Remi’s own sense of ethical standards. Meanwhile, Remi and his friend Omange debate the powers of the new black government. Both oppose tribalism and support the new nation, but Remi refuses to sanction the right of workers to strike, while Omange envisions a state based on black workers rather than foreign aid. Despite Remi’s support for the government, he refuses to enter politics when the elders visit the city to plead for his return. When the priest visits him, he sends word of his return, but his motives are confused.
Upon his return to the anxious village, Remi rants against tribalism. Yet he reveals himself as an obsessed, arrogant intellectual whose egotism renders him incapable of recognizing the strengths and appreciating the values in his own people. He renounces Christianity, but he has sacrificed his own spiritual awareness and interpersonal sensitivity to his rigid, nearly desperate, adherence to unquestioned principles of nationalism. When Remi renounces his marriage to Thoni, she flees and kills herself. Having asserted his individuality as more important than the complexities of traditional, communal society, Remi realizes, too late, that he has not thwarted tribalism and custom but profaned the mutual love and respect on which the traditions are founded. He recognizes, in short, that African traditions must inform the evolution of African nationalism. Although Omange, the priest, Jane, and Remi himself are type characters in The Black Hermit, the elders suggest a ceremonial dignity and ritual wisdom, represented by “Africa’s anthem” and sung in Kiswahili. The women Nyobi and Thoni provide models of genuine sensitivity in their mutual support to overcome the literal and figurative departure of Remi: Leaders, they assert, cannot take leave of compassion.
This Time Tomorrow
The critique of leadership extends from The Black Hermit to the three one-act dramas in This Time Tomorrow. In The Rebels, a young man returns home with a Ugandan fiancé, Mary, only to find that his father has chosen a local girl to be his bride. When he hesitates to accept the arrangement dictated by custom, the humiliated prospective bride kills herself, and he loses Mary as well. Implicitly, the play attacks the lack of black unity among the emerging nations of East Africa. By his use of a Ugandan for the character of Mary, Ngugi focuses on tribal prejudice rather than racial or colonial repression as the source of conflict. The Wound in My Heart portrays Ruhiu, a Mau Mau detainee, who eagerly returns to his village after his release only to find his wife with a child from an adulterous affair with a white man. Before she can hear Ruhiu’s reaction, his wife kills herself. The fatalism inherent in The Black Hermit and these two one-acts, despite their sympathy with the role of African women in the emerging nation, yields to the undeveloped social protest of This Time Tomorrow, a one-act attack on the affluent classes for their demolition of a slum in the interests of foreign investment and tourism. This play prefigures the social commitment of Ngugi’s next two plays.
The Trial of Dedan Kimathi
In The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, Ngugi shifts his concern from confused though well-intentioned leading characters to the strength of group commitment in reforming colonial practices that continue in independent Kenya. The play shapes the historical Dedan Kimathi into a heroic figure who embodies the idealistic principles of Mau Mau resistance. By idealizing a myth of Mau Mau, Ngugi and Micere Githae-Mugo, his collaborator, hoped to create a call to action, extolling Mau Mau glory and criticizing the neocolonial betrayal of the Mau Mau goals for social justice. An appeal to popular audiences, the play eulogizes Kimathi while celebrating his resistance to colonial enemies and staging re-creations of his tribulations, both in the courtroom and in private confrontations in his cell. Using an extremely loose structure—by Western standards—of three “Movements” rather than formally designed acts, each of which includes “Trials” and randomly juxtaposed rather than tightly meshed scenes, Ngugi creates...
(The entire section is 2965 words.)