The cult musical Jesus Christ Superstar has come to Nairobi and we’re ready to be entertained, moved, inspired and more. The director is critically acclaimed Stuart Nash and extra-ordinary Mkamzee Mwatela, Mugambi Nthiga and Dan ‘Chizi’ Aceda play Herod, Judas and Jesus. JCS was written in 1970 by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice who between them have written some of the world’s most popular musicals including Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Evita and The Lion King. To see this iconic musical on a Kenyan stage is exciting to say the least. But not just because it is a famous musical and there is an excellent cast. The musical is also in many ways timely and thought-provoking. Since we know these actors come with some seriously stringent and interesting brains, we asked for a pre-premiere chat and were lucky to get some time with Mugambi Nthiga, Dan Aceda and Mkamzee Mwatela. We’re very happy to share this conversation about Jesus Christ Superstar, perspectives, betrayal, acting and more with you. Enjoy… and see you at the theatre!
It is soon time to let the audience see the results of your rehearsals. How are you feeling right now? What emotions or thoughts are you checking into this interview with?
MN: Quite simple. It’s my default setting of utter dread, but accompanied by a real feeling of excitement. It’s like opening the door to an unknown room and wondering, where does this one lead?
MM: I’m not thinking about the show much right now. All that happens before the curtain rises.
DA: HAHA! I am calm. I don’t get too nervous till maybe the day before the show. We’ve been working hard on this show so we are confident that we will do well. The only question is how well.
For readers who are not familiar with the JCS story, could you give us a brief summary? (Yes, we consciously asked and included all three answers since the play is about perspective : )
MN: Jesus Christ Superstar is a dramatization of the last seven days before Jesus’ crucifixion. After three years of ministry, he and the disciples are revelling in the frenzy of fired-up Israelites who believe this new gospel, and are creating a headache for the Romans. Things take their natural course and Judas finds himself at the centre of everything.
MM: Jesus starts preaching, Jesus becomes a rock star, Judas doesn’t like it – thinks it’s getting to Jesus’ head, he gets too big for the establishment, they come after him, his followers don’t back him up, and Jesus dies.
DA: Jesus Christ Superstar is the story of Jesus as told from the point of view of Judas. It’s an interesting take on the story especially in the way it humanizes the characters.
Is this the first time that the three of you work together?
MN: It’s my first time working with Dan on stage. I’ve been to several of his gigs and he is a great performer and storyteller. And his work on Mo Faya was memorable. I worked with Mkamzee on my first paid acting gig, Sarafina! She played the titular role. To say the rest of us were in awe of her commitment and skill is an understatement. I can say without a doubt that she was my first acting teacher.
DA: I have worked with Mkamzee before on different projects. What an amazingly talented person. My God. But it’s my first time to work with Mugambi and Miriam who are super talented people. I am honoured to share the stage with them. So yes, this is the first time.
What led you to acting?
MN: Just the feeling that it had to happen. This is where I feel most complete. Most useful. It’s the will of whatever Higher Power resides above us. This is where I’m fulfilled.
MM: Music led me into acting.
DA: Probably the same thing that led Usain Bolt to running the 100m race or Manu Chandaria to Business. HAHA! Anyways, I am happy to have this opportunity to do work that I love doing and to be able to tell stories and share experiences with others.
What character traits or mindsets/perspectives in you are most important to you in your profession?
MN: Truthfulness, curiosity, empathy. Acting is an exercise in truthful storytelling. Our work involves telling others’ stories by literally being them. That requires us to want to know them and have an idea what it’s like to be them. That’s where the work is. No shortcuts. You can spot a phoney from a mile away.
DA: I think the most important trait is openness and willingness to share your story, All artistes have this actually. Art is sharing and one can’t do that if you are not ready to be put under the microscope. Now about character and mind-sets and perspectives, art has the whole lot.
MM: 1.) It’s all your responsibility, all the time, all of it. 2.) It’s never done, there’s always more to learn from the performance, deeper to go. The work is never complete. 3.) You know better than anyone what your performance was like. People can criticise you or compliment you, it doesn’t matter. You know the truth. 4.) Acting is sacred and beautiful. It’s also not that serious. The truth lies somewhere between. 5.) “The aim is not to make art, but to become an artist”- Christopher Doyle – that’s my new mantra to all things are related.
What gives you confidence? And is personal confidence and creative confidence the same?
MN: Yes, they are, And it’s in the work. Just do the work. I honestly cannot find it out of my own will or effort. I’m too flippant, too full of self-doubt for that. The stuff I do affirms me. This obviously works terribly when the work Is scant, or when motivation is low.
MM: I think confidence comes from working and making small strides in little acknowledged moments. No they’re the same, it’s why rehearsal is mostly tedious and boring, but beneath that mundane surface magic is happening. Confidence=hard, consistent work.
DA: Well, I think confidence (all kinds) is like a flower. It’s beautiful when one has it but easily goes away. I think what one needs is preparation because that allows one to build and maintain confidence.
Back to JCS, why do you think it has become such a cult musical?
MN: It really is a great story. The Biblical telling of the last days of Jesus’ life already make for the stuff of legend (or the divine, if you will). Remove from the religious value from the story, and it’s still moving and inspiring. The musical and character elements of JCS are brave and creative; and depending on how you believe, potentially quite controversial.
MM: I think because it’s such an irreverent take of such a revered story- it’s like finally being alone in the house and running around with your clothes off as an adult. Freeing.
DA: This is a world famous musical with a worldwide following and has been staged since the 60s. It’s a lot more than a cult following. This is a real smash hit and it’s brilliant to be on the cast that stages it in Kenya in 2017!
Does the Kenyan context affect the creative choices when setting up this play and do you think this affects how the play is received by the audience?
MN: We made a few tweaks to some stage directions and artistic choices. This happens with every staging of every play. But this isn’t a ‘Kenyanised’ version of JCS. We have stayed very true to the origins and legacy of the musical. As for the reaction from audiences, I am as excited about it as you are.
MM: Yes, the Kenyan context does affect the choices made, more by the director than anyone else. Any good work draws from its context, an example would be the scene in the Temple, which draws on modern day activities 2) I couldn’t tell you that. I have never believed that I know anything about how the audience will feel or think so I don’t spend any time thinking about it.
DA: Well, as far as I know we are showing this as close to the original as possible. We haven’t really made any changes to the script and music. But off course each actor will bring their own take to the character they are playing. How the audience will receive it is something we will see but are confident that it will be positive. There are a lot of extremely talented people on this cast.
JCS addresses the complex matter of perspective. Has working with this play changed your own thoughts on perspectives on religion or general? What other events in history (or in the Gospel) do you think it would be good for us to see from a different perspective than the standard?
MN: To be honest? All of them. Look at the Bible. Aside from the Gospels and a few epistles, pretty much every story is told from the perspective of the writer; or a certain protagonist. The other participants in the story have to settle for broad strokes. I would honestly love to know the true, human accounts of people like Delilah, or Barabbas or Pharaoh. JCS tells the crucifixion story from Judas’ perspective, which has earned it a fair share of controversy, simply because Judas has earned that single reputation we all know him for. He is The Betrayer. Surely, how is he worthy then, of telling his story?
MM: Not really, religion is not something I do not pay much attention to. That would depend on what the ‘standard’ is, no? I find life is more interesting when you question what you think you know, so in that context, questioning is valuable, yes – but only to people who are willing to be wrong.
DA: No, it hasn’t changed my perspective at all. I would like to see a musical about Tom Mboya. Maybe one day this will happen.
Could you share some of your individual preparations in terms of exploring and becoming your characters?
MN: I’ve been reading up on Judas, particularly the views inspired by the rock musical, the film and the stage musical. JCS has had a 40-plus year run, so there’s a sufficient amount of literature and rumination on the whole story, and on Judas.
MM: I wouldn’t call it preparation as much as I would to marinate. I read the script, and don’t think about it much after, except to know my lines and cues- then I marinate. I show up to rehearsal, play with it there, and set it aside when I’m not there. Inevitably the character is present by the time I take the stage, I don’t think about it too much. This is one of the areas of life where I enjoy the mystery of how it all falls into place.
DA: Just a lot of reading and rehearsal. The music is rock heavy and I had to get myself acquainted with this style. Besides that watching the way previous actors have played this role has been useful to give me a base from which to draw inspiration.
How did you work with your voices to make them communicate your characters?
MN: Awh man. That’s been my weak point, I’ll admit, I haven’t sung for an audience in over ten years. I have been doing vocal exercises at home as often as I can, and giving my best at rehearsals. It’s in hitting the notes right, that I can find the confidence to find a “performance voice” for Judas. If I sing right, I perform right.
DA: HAHA! We just learned the songs! But off course there are more demands on us here to convey emotion while we sing so there has been quite a bit of work to sort out tone, intonation inflections and so on.
Have you felt there are parallels between the events in the script/play and contemporary society and politics?
MN: Absolutely. This is a story about a man with revolutionary ideas, who upsets the political establishment, earns its wrath, and (spoiler alert!) is eliminated by it. It’s one of the more consistent political conventions.
MM: I think that one of the reasons the story of Jesus like so much religious mythology has an impact is because it always draws parallels with human nature – most of it at its most intense expression in politics.
DA: Well, yes. In the end the story of Jesus is the classic tragedy, where the hero dies. But these days reality is stranger than fiction so maybe I should have said No.
What from you do you feel that you have added to your character?
MN: A desire to have the story told right, as only I can tell it.
MM: Breasts? And other woman parts.
DA: Dreadlocks first! And maybe 2kg of Melanin. HAHAHA! Playing Jesus is an interesting experience. I have had to really dig deep to find a way to play it. I think I am playing it a lot calmer than previous actors have played it. I hope it works!
Do you have a favourite moment in the play? A favourite line?
MN: Probably a favourite scene, The Last Supper.
MM: A favourite song, ‘Gethsemane’
DA: This show is full of very strong moments so it’s tough to choose just one. But if you nailed me to the wall then I would say that Herod’s scene is definitely up there.
Is there a line or scene that you love to see one of the others doing?
MN: The song Jesus performs in the garden of Gethsemane, and the Trial Before Pirate. Those are my favourite parts. Mary Magdalene’s songs are also pretty good. And she seems to precede Judas every time. I think that’s intentional.
MM: I am making a cameo so I am barely present during the rehearsal. I look forward to being pleasantly surprised.
DA: Yes. There’s a very animated point in The Last Supper where Mugambi really gets into the character. I think this will be a very memorable moment for the audience.
Do you think Judas has been judged to harshly or wrongly? Does this play reveal a reality that the narrative in churches has disregarded/neglected?
MN: Yup. I honestly think he has been granted him a one-dimensional narrative, an incomplete rap sheet. To portray him as an actual, complex character would be granting him the sort of service any character deserves. Not everyone will agree with me on this.
MM: I’ve always thought that Judas is treated unfairly, like many ‘villains’ in religious mythology, but that is unsurprising considering the core message behind most religions. It dwells on the fact that Jesus was just a man, a fact that is often conveniently ignored.
DA: Yes, I think he’s judged quite harshly. But I don’t know what options he had to be honest. Somebody had to betray Jesus. Otherwise the whole redemption story would not happen. I don’t think Churches need to tell Judas’ story. That’s not why they exists. I don’t think they have deliberately ignored it… but…. I am just a guy from Nairobi.
What is betrayal?
MN: Going against the idea of you that someone else has, that caused them to put their trust in you.
MM: To act in bad faith – it is one of the things I find fascinating about this script. I feel Judas acted in line with his own values. To avoid betraying Jesus’ trust, he would have been betraying himself. I am not sure he should have chosen differently.
DA: There’s a dictionary definition for this so I will just refer to that. I have nothing useful to add to what’s there.
One of the creative choices that is made in this script is that the relationship Jesus had with his disciples is brought out in a different way from what we see in the Gospel. Could you describe that a little?
MN: I don’t think it deviates that strongly, to be honest. That’s the most consistent part, in fact. Jesus’ relation with Judas, and with Mary Magdalene, that’s where the fun stuff is. Let’s just say, the characters are granted the kind of humanity that may make more rigid audiences uncomfortable.
DA: He’s very friendly with them. Which I think is more realistic. I find it hard to believe that people followed him around for three whole years without being his friend. And it helps us understand why the betrayal was such a big deal. These people were friends and to see things go that way was very painful.
What is it like to play Herod as a woman? Does gender matter for this character?
MM: I’m not sure, I haven’t played Herod as a man : ) I wouldn’t think so, in any context. Herod is a ruler, self obsessed and threatened by an emerging star- I am sure women have been all these things before.
DA’s comment: Gender shouldn’t matter for any character. And I think Herod being a woman is an absolutely brilliant creative decision.
What was it like to create a more human Jesus?
DA: Extremely difficult. And then very very very very hard.
Why should people come see this play?
MN: We’ve worked hard to put this together. Stuart has ensured that we can get this to a world-class standard. The total number of cast, band, orchestra and tech crew members adds up to many dozen people. See it if only for them.
MM: It’s entertaining, if you’re into that sort of thing.
DA: Because it’s absolutely awesome! It’s a world class play that’s been staged all over the world and is now being staged in Kenya by some of the best actors around. It’s going to go down in the history of Kenya’s creative journey.
Why have you enjoyed working with it?
MN: I get to do things I haven’t done in a long time. Like sing before people and not want the stage to open up and swallow me. I had decided at the beginning of 2017 that I will try singing again. Here we are. : )
MM: I like music, I like shenanigans. Musical theatre is pretty much shenanigans with music attached.
DA: I really have. It’s been an honour and a pleasure.
What does this story have to teach us that we can bring with us into our daily lives in the modern world?
MN: You need to see it to receive that thing. I think everyone will get something different. But they need to put some work in, and come out and see it.
MM: Don’t do anything if you’re not 100% sure of why you’re doing it.
DA: Same thing that the Jesus story in the Bible teaches.
Mugambi, tell us something that makes it great to work with Mkamzee and Aceda?
MN: They have perfected their own individual craft, and don’t stand for anything less than brilliant. There’s an invigorating feeling to working with people like that. I’d call it security-induced freedom.
Mkamzee, tell us something that makes it great to work with Aceda and Mugambi?
MM: I’ve known them for a long time as individuals, so I trust them onstage. It’s that feeling when you can fall asleep in the back of the car because you know the driver has got you.
Aceda, tell us something that makes it great to work with Mkamzee and Mugambi?
DA: These are two of the BEST actors in the country with loads of experience both locally and internationally. It’s an honor to work with them and they have helped me raise my level so much. I am blown away.
Have you discovered something new about yourself during the process of rehearsing JSC?
MN: Yes! I can listen to myself singing and not cringe! And I can actually perform in a room before people. I honestly didn’t think that was possible a few months ago.
DA: Yes. That I am a much bigger fan of Mugambi and Mkamzee than I thought I was.
MM: I have a deeply steeped love for gold lamé.
All shows will be staged at the KENYA NATIONAL THEATRE, Harry Thuku RD, Nairobi.
- Price – KES. 1,500
- For tickets, call 0795 715200 or buy here http://tikiti.co.ke/geteventfinal/80
- Tickets available at the Kenya National Theatre and will be available on the day as well. There is also a Paybill number: 697663.
Friday 7th April – 7PM
Saturday 8th – 3PM and 6PM
Sunday 9th – 3PM and 6PM
Thursday 13th – 7PM
Good Friday 14th – 7PM
Saturday 15th – 3PM and 6PM
Easter Sunday 16th – 3PM and 6PM
Easter Monday 17th – 6PM
ALL IMAGES FROM JCS NAIROBI PR TEAM.