Thursday, February 21, 2008

Kenya, the Musical

Tonight I saw our high school's production of Urinetown, a musical satire that spotlights the effects of abuse of authority, government corruption, greedy corporations, and even idealism. The plot centers on a town suffering from drought and the Corporation that "saves" it by requiring citizens to give up home toilets and pay to use public restrooms to conserve water (and garner lots and lots of cash for the Evil CEO). Violators are sent to "Urinetown," a euphemism for well...death. And then there's the young man who questions the law...and falls in love in love with the CEO's daughter...

(I loved that one of the actors dedicated his performance to his "loving" dog in the playbill, noting that the pup reminds him "every day that it is in fact, a privilege to pee"--referring to a memorable song in Act I).

It is a witty, smart show; it mocks its own form with a narrator who comments on the conventions of musical theatre, and there are burlesque numbers that parody gospel as well as Jewish folk music. As a vice principal, I understand why this show is particularly appropriate for high school students (despite its potty name): it condems arbitrary rules and celebrates freedom, but deftly warns against blind idealism.

There is familiar and contemporary imagery; the Evil Corporation's name is cleverly arranged in Enron's iconic, infamous tilted "E," and a slideshow projected on the set displays recent headlines and magazine covers emphasizing the play's themes. But despite all that is at first glance American about this play, much reminded me of what's happening in Kenya: masses of people led in one direction and then in another, promised greater freedoms and ownership and disappointed by corrupt leaders, again and again. And like in the play, reacting with violence in an eye-for-eye retaliatory fashion.

Near the end of the show, the rebels oust the Evil CEO, and under the leadership of a starry-eyed ingenue, gain back their right to pee freely. But the narrator is quick to point out that the water shortage will soon return, former rebels will die of thirst, and the big-hearted freedom-for-all leader of the masses will meet a fate not unlike her predecessor. And on and on. There is no happy ending to this show, because Urinetown is really YourOwnTown, where citizens must constantly battle runaway power, greed, and lack of common sense from the people who lead. And those leaders know how to sell a great bill of goods.

In the meantime, people suffer. The image of a little girl Holding It while trying to gather the last pennies required for the opportunity to relieve herself has an absurd and comical bent. But watching policemen erect roadblocks and require locals to pay bribes for passage on roads they paid for in part with taxes, taxes that don't properly pay policemen, while leaders squander money and squirrel it away in offshore accounts makes one realize that the absurdity of paying to urinate for the so-called Public Good and certain Private Gain, set to song, may not be far off...

There's no happy ending to this story. But at least in America, we can afford to laugh along the way.

You can read here about how Kenya's shared-power negotiations are breaking down as the opposition threatens civil obedience, once again, at the peril of the Kenyan people. And how one leader made an unexplained jaunt to Nigeria, while the citizens anxiously await their fates.

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