Obama the Mamba – delightfully surprising

I treated myself to a trip to the theatre this week, to see Obama the Mamba, at the Lowry Theatre in Salford Quays. And a treat it was, sensitive, thought-provoking and surprisingly gripping for a show with only the bare bones of a plot.

For those who don’t speak Swahili, the title needs explaining – what is a “mamba”? – and is likely to lack punch as a result. But to the Swahili speaker the title hits home immediately, throwing up a very different question in the process: why is Obama being called a crocodile? The answer is that this not about the Obama you know, the US President, but rather about his half brother, George, and his life in Nairobi. George was given the street name “Mamba”, because of his quick aggressiveness as a member of a criminal gang in the Huruma neighbourhood of Nairobi. He has written a book that tells his story, the inspiration for this play.
My expectation was for a play that dwelled on the swings and arrows of fortune that led one man to have two sons living such different lives. But Barack hardly featured in the play at all, a distant presence. Even in the climactic scene where an imagined Barack was the target of a drunken rant of questions from his half-brother, the questions we more about George himself and his (dead) father than Barack. But the play was all the better for it.

This was George’s story, defiantly so. Yes, he acknowledged, no-one would be paying him or his story any attention if it weren’t for the fact that he shares a name and half his DNA with the leader of the world’s most powerful nation. And yes, he also admitted, he’s milking the connection for all it’s worth. But as he puts it, how else does the view from the streets of Huruma get to be heard?

And in George’s representation on stage, Huruma has found a powerful advocate. His story is told with passion, of growing up relatively well off in a middle class Nairobi suburb, falling out of school and off the rails, turning to drink and drugs, then to violent crime, and spending time in a Nairobi prison before turning his life around. Huruma is in his heart; he rails against the community’s powerlessness in the face of abuses by the police and politicians. He now lives there by choice and works with street children.

The play was a one-man show, with Clifford Samuel playing George, telling us his life story a series of snippets, jumping backward and forward in time as someone might tell you about himself in conversation. This kept the focus on George and Huruma, and saved the story from descent into a predictable narrative arc of descent and rebirth. Similarly, though the use of generic “African” music (of a kind that is rarely if ever listened to in any part of Africa that I know, still less in inner-city Nairobi) in the introduction and an early reference to “Nairobbery” led me to fear that the clichés were set to come thick and fast, I need not have worried. It was a real story of a real person in a real neighbourhood.

The performance we attended was followed by a Q&A session with Samuel, the play’s writer and director (Kevin Fegan and Kully Thiarai), and George Obama himself. The conversation focussed more on the play – the research, writing and production process – than on George and his life, which was a little disappointing. But it was great to hear from him directly, about how he feels about his representation on stage – very positive, although he had no direct input into the play – and that he finds it very disconcerting to watch someone else playing out scenes from his own life on stage. He certainly appeared to be rather shell-shocked by the experience.

In all, I was delightfully surprised by the play – a subtle and gripping portrayal of George Obama. Don’t watch it because of his half brother; watch it for George in his own right. You won’t be disappointed.