Kasbah @ Espionage
August 9-27 (except Mon)
The wee Kasbah room is tucked up inside a warren of rooms in the Espionage venue. A tiny arena befitting an intimate night out rather than the stage for an excellent comedian, it was fairly full of expectant punters. Of course with the front row was typically empty. They need not have been afraid to take their seats though, as Njambi had already told me she didn’t pick on audience members, as she wanted to keep them on her side. She introduced herself before she came on, which kickstarted the laughs, and she slipped onto stage with her elegant black dress and braids; fitting for the dry, sardonic sense of humour that she was about to unleash on us. As dry as the Sahara, if you’re going to use an African stereotype. ‘I’ve come by plane, just so you know’, and so begun her quick, cheeky unravelling of all those well worn Western stereotypes of African people. The flyer promises the following: ‘Having survived a beating that nearly killed her, Njambi McGrath is forced to confront the perpetrator, her father, for answers when their paths unexpectedly cross again.’ Although the painful relationship with her violent father formed the backbone of the hour, most of the flesh was in the form of punchy, hard hitting jokes, cleverly entwined metaphors and dead-pan one liners on a variety of topical subjects.
Njambi didn’t delve into a linear account of the story of her father as you might expect from the flyer. It must be such a painful story to tell that it has to be shredded up and tossed in to the script in a piecemeal fashion, padded out with piles upon piles of sharp, edgy jokes. This particular audience were a little stiff and quiet, not seeming sure of what to make of her material; unsure if it was OK for them to laugh or not. It was almost as if she was too clever for her audience, or perhaps the jokes were so hard-hitting and so dryly delivered, and served up with just a hint of a sardonic smile that they were falling on deaf ears. Come on guys, her Kenyan accent isn’t THAT strong…She throws in some comments about her father early on, so you get an inkling of his character from the start. Her needing to lie to him in order to avoid a severe punishment. “Who painted on the wall? Oh, Banksy did it!” or “Who threw those stones outside? Oh it was the Devil!”.
To be fair though, her delivery was so fast that you had to concentrate to keep up with the constant of barrage of jokes pelting out surreptiously into the audience’s minds. I was a little sleepy and slow after a late night out, and my brain was still slightly on slow-mo, but there was only just enough time for one joke to hit and sink it before three more hard-hitters followed. It would have been good for her to pause and watch the tough nuggets to get digested by the audience fully before moving on. Let us savour and enjoy her wicked jibes in their full, succulent glory. She threw in jokes thick and fast with clever metaphors that had some of us dullards struggling to keep up. By the time the significance of one joke had hit us hard she was off, running down the track with another.
We all enjoyed the jibes at internet attention seekers putting their heads in crocodile’s mouths and expecting to be spared. As she named it, ‘Teaching assholes a lesson’! She imagined Donald Trump and Sarah Palin being tortured with general knowledge questions that they can’t answer. ‘What is the capital of Togo?’. The fitting punishment for their ignorance being ‘hugged by Muslims with ticking clocks’! And laughs came at twisting our perspective to being the recipients of all those unwanted cuddly toys dumped abroad, those that resemble the wild animal you’ve just had to flee and being the children suspiciously ripping the heads of sinister looking white dolls. Watching cows’ shit was much more entertaining, she muses, as the Barbies we got don’t even have a vagina!
She talked quite a bit about her childhood growing up in Kenya, laughing at the trials of having a battery-operated TV set, which when it cut out, had imaginative aunties as back up to fill in the blanks in the story. She pauses as she imagines talking to her aunt with the wide eyes of a child, “Are you sure there was witchcraft in Dallas?” She talked about being grounded in good African reality rather than the Disneyfication of our hopes and dreams; that marrying for love rather than obeying your family’s wishes is really not going to work out for you. I must find a copy of ‘Love Brewed in the African Pot’, just to give my own Disney inspired ideas of ‘Happily Ever After’ a reality check. As she said, Beauty and the Beast a few years down the line isn’t going to be all it was cracked up to be, with him old, grizzled and foul and demoralised Beauty going to look for sex with waiters on holiday!
I think it’s difficult when you want to discuss some serious matters as part of a comedy show, which all good comedians attempt, but your audience have no cultural or historical reference points to really understand the depth of what you’re trying to convey. The horrors of King Leopold of Belgium’s holocaust in the Congo, the Mau Mau rebellion and the concentration camps run by the British a handful of years after the Jewish Holocaust are not subjects the audience was familiar with. I’ve studied African history, been to Kenya and my son bears a Kikuyu name, so by accident I happen to know a little of the subject matter. But we should all know this stuff. The British education system deliberately steers us away from facing up to our own historical crimes, and this is why new voices on the comedy circuit are like a breath of fresh air into the hidden vaults of our own shameful past.
There were very poignant moments as she recalled the full horror of what her father did to her and how she faced it. It’s so fast you barely have time to imagine the scene, but fleeting images are probably enough. It’s an inspiring story of hope and compassion; digesting the pain of it with both compassion and humour. She lost the crowd a little towards the end, perhaps because she was worrying about their muted reaction. It was very mixed; the group in front absolutely loved it and found it fascinating. The group behind, from the Scottish countryside, were bewildered and confused, muttering that they ‘felt cheated’. Having just witnessed such a unique and well constructed show for free, I wondered what experience they had been expecting?
Reviewer: Lisa Williams