"Obama: The Musical"

In song and dance, Kenyans see a savior capable of uplift – and visas – in the new US president.

Revival: "Obama: The Musical," started in Nairobi as a one-man show after the young US senator spoke at the 2004 Democratic convention; it morphed into a full cast production during the 2008 election season.


Barack Obama has gone out of his way to begin playing down expectations and distancing himself from the notion that he is some sort of chosen one, put on Earth to deliver a brighter future for all.
Only no one has told his fans in Kenya.

As the cast of “Obama: The Musical” stomp, sing, and salsa their way through their fast-moving stage production at the Kenya National Theatre one thing becomes clear: To Kenya and the rest of Africa the 44th president of the United States is nothing short of a savior.

The sound system hums, the actors stumble over their words, and an overenthusiastic band threatens to drown out the lines altogether. Yet nothing can quite hide the messianic message.

“Unto me, a man from Kenya,” says Danson Mateya, playing Mr. Obama’s father, “and a woman from Kansas a boy shall be born and his name will be... ”

Barack Obama” comes the slightly tardy response from the audience, crammed into narrow seats that look as if they have been salvaged from a 1960s fleapit.

On stage, the action veers from a Kenyan village to Hawaiian basketball courts and on to the 2004 Democratic convention, where Obama first sprang to prominence.

It is an 80-minute, $7-per-ticket tale of the American Dream, of African poverty, and of hope overcoming adversity – all told through pulsating rhythms and shuffling feet.

The show sold out during the November election season and was hastily revived on the eve of this week’s inauguration to take advantage of the excitement on the streets here. (Local TV was totally devoted to the inauguration yesterday, and big screens were set up in town and village squares to broadcast the inauguration.)

• • •

From village to White House in one generation is a tantalizing story in a country where millions live on less than a dollar a day.

Director George Orido, a former soap opera star who devised a one-man show to coincide with Obama’s 2006 visit to Kenya updated it to include caricatures of villains: a winking Sarah Palin and John McCain, portrayed so goofily that he can barely use a mobile phone.

“The main message for my show is that anything is possible if you believe and work hard at it,” he says. “That’s important, because I come from a part of the world which has been written off by the rest of the planet. We can’t even feed ourselves.

“Obama’s story is one of turning things around, mobilizing people and making change.”

Kenya is a country desperately in need of a leader prepared to deliver his people to safety.

It is barely a year since tribal fissures were exposed in weeks of political violence. More than 1,000 people died as disputed elections brought rioters to the streets and slums burned.

Now hunger is stalking a tinder-dry land.

Last week the government declared a national emergency as food stocks dwindled to dangerous levels, putting 10 million people at risk.

Government ministers announced extra deliveries of food – as a special inauguration gift – to the region around the village of Kogelo, where the Obama family’s simple farm of cornfields, mango trees, and grazing goats is located.

Today the Obama homestead, a seven-hour drive from Nairobi, is a very different place from the one depicted in Mr. Orido’s musical, where cockerels crow and women wear colorful wraps.

The rutted dirt track that leads to their cluster of huts was smoothed and graded last year. An eight-foot gate and security officers guard the entrance. And surveyors for the public electric utility arrived the day after Obama’s Nov. 4 victory – with electricity following soon after. The Kenyan government has pulled out all the stops for the area so that the international focus on the Obama family doesn’t capture a backward and impoverished land.

Locals arrive looking for help from the family to get American visas while foreigners simply gawp at the latest stop on their Kenyan safari holidays.

• • •
Back on stage, the Obama story darkens and the rhythms slow as the young black man endures racism and uncertainty growing up in America. It is the one moment of melancholy in an otherwise upbeat show.
Around him drug addicts writhe on the ground as Obama finally realizes it is time to clean up his act. He has come through his temptation and survived the wilderness.

For Orido, the biblical resonance is deliberate.

“Blacks have long been seen as less than human. Obama changes that by going to the White House,” he says, on the steps of the theater after Monday’s show.

“For us that makes him like a prophet and to associate him with a religious figure is not a sin.”

Indeed, in the language of the Luo – the tribe of Obama’s father and Orido – the word “Ruoth” is used for both leader and for Jesus. Never mind that Barack means “blessed” in Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa.

So while the spin doctors in Washington may be trying to play down Obama’s ability to walk on water, miracles are expected in the land of his father.

Every Kenyan seems to have a wish list of roads, schools, and hospitals that they hope an Afican-American in Washington can deliver. At the very least he offers a role model for a continent awash with corrupt politicians.

In November, celebrating the Obama victory, Zachary Oremo, an unemployed Kogelo resident, described his hopes for the Luo president of the United States. “We will be able to go to America, get a passport and get a good job there,” he said with a perfectly straight face.

In some ways “Obama: The Musical” sheds little new light on Obama’s story. It is a great celebration of African music and dance without really getting to the heart of what makes the man tick.

Instead, it casts a huge spotlight on Kenya and Africa’s hopes and expectations: the allure of the American dream and of the man living it. It captures a feeling of deliverance from misery that is abroad in a land stalked by hunger and pestilence.

Alison Davidian, an Australian working for the United Nations in Nairobi, who was in the audience, says the message is clear.

“It showed how proud Kenya is of one of its own sons. When a company in Kenya is putting on a play about the president of the US and he becomes a hero for people in Africa, that’s a rare and special thing.”

All that’s missing is a manger.

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