John Sibi-Okumu, or JSO, as he’s fondly referred to, is not a new name to anyone on the Kenyan art scene. The distinguished artist and radio and TV personality boasts a long resume that includes acting, directing, and writing credits, among others.
John Sibi Okumu was born in 1954 in Kenya’s pre-independence Western Province. His life changed when he and his family moved to London, the United Kingdom, to live with his father. He was the first African magistrate in Kenya’s history, and as such, he was well educated and gifted in the arts.
But there is more to John; he’s a perfect linguist who speaks French as well as English, and not only does he speak French, but he has also taught it.
It is partly the reason he’s referred to Muwalimu and Swahili as teachers.
John Sibi Okumu’s journey to stage
Like many acclaimed actors, John Sibi Okumu started his journey on stage while a student at Lenana School in 1968. In the 1970s, he was appearing in shows such as Joe DeGraft’s Graft and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
But that was just the beginning. In the 1980s, he was gracing the Kenya National Theatre stages. Shows such as the reimagination of Bruce Beresford’s 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy in 1995, King Oedipus in 1991, and Krapp’s Last Tape in 1982 launched the icon onto the theatre scene.
John’s performances in these shows garnered critical acclaim and established him as a prominent figure in the Kenyan theatre industry. His talent and dedication to his craft continued to shine through in subsequent decades, solidifying his reputation as one of the country’s most respected actors.
Often, at their peak, actors tend to experiment with other roles in theatre, such as production and directing. It only a few times that they throw writing into the mix. John, however, went for it all—writing, directing, and producing. He wrote plays in both English and French.
A story has been told that the thespian was simply dared into writing. According to Kenyan theatre critic Margaretta wa Gacheru, John was dared into playwriting by two people, a colleague’s girlfriend and Dr. Barrack Muluka, an author and seasoned publishing editor.
‘Somebody said it’s about time we had Kenyan plays that people could interpret year in, year out. We had Ngugi wa Thiongo’s books:The Black Hermit & The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City—all good material but written in the 70s,” he says.
The dare moment started a journey that gave birth to his first play, Role Play: A Journey into the Kenya Psyche.
Role Play makes a very strong impression on both the emotions and the mind, and for that alone, it was highly commended. The Courtyard Theatre Company’s production, directed by the author, J. E. Sibi-Okumu, covered a wide range of personalities and themes in the “Kenyan psyche”. It tackled some uncomfortable aspects of Kenyan life: poor leadership, corruption, the abuse of power, and racial tension.
John’s decision to take on writing as well as directing and producing set him apart from many other theatre professionals. His willingness to explore multiple roles allowed him to fully express his creative vision and showcase his versatility. This daring move not only challenged him artistically but also opened up new opportunities for collaboration and growth within the theatre community.
As a director, John Sibi Okumu is mostly known for co-directing Minister Karibu with George Mungai. Much as John doesn’t describe the play as controversial, he admits he intentionally created a cast full of stereotypes so that the audience could see how ridiculous those cliched characters are.
The Phoenix Players first staged the play in 2012. The company was so pleased with his writing that they made him promise to write a new play every year and stage it at the theatre. A wish he granted with plays such as Meetings and Elements, both written in 2013 and Kaggia in 2014.
John’s commitment to creating thought-provoking and entertaining plays led to the continued success of the Phoenix Players. With each new production, he pushed the boundaries of storytelling and challenged societal norms.
Role Play marked a milestone for him; he asked his former lecturer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to write the foreword for the play.
Yash Pal Ghai, the father of the Kenyan constitution, wrote the introduction and an analysis.
His subsequent play, Minister Karibu, drew inspiration from the big man syndrome that is common, particularly on the African continent.
“Why are Kenyans so keen on Baba, Mtakatifu? What’s driving this thing? Tribal stereotypes: Luos love English, Kikuyus are thieves… I’m exploring this through the style of mistaken identity, he says, adding, “My two leads are a bunch of crooks that look exactly like Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi (two famous Kenyan politicians), and they take advantage of this.
The play is a commentary on fraud and its victims.
Meetings takes its cue from Romeo and Juliet; when a boy and a girl first meet, they are horrified to learn that their fathers were involved in the coup in 1982. One was a revolutionary, while the other was a spy who leaked information about the former. It’s unravelling a lot of their shared past.
The play is a series of meetings between all these people between generations, trying to get together before an impending reunion.
Meetings, which is also examinable in schools, sends a message that, at some point, despite all the wrongs that have been committed, both sides have to put their differences aside and start over.
“It was intended to persuade Kenyans to refrain from killing one another in the manner they did in 2007,” he says.
John Sibi Okumu on the silver screen
Yet, for JSO, it is always the beginning; his excellence on stage has not stopped him from wanting more. From his work as a journalist, news anchor, TV host, and gracing the big screen in remarkable films such as The Constant Gardener, the Canadian war drama Shake Hands with the Devil, as well as Justin Chadwick’s First Grader.
Besides the Hollywood dramas, John has been a common figure on local TV, where he started as a news anchor for Kenyan TV KTN. Later, he became the face of a university quiz show when he was the host of the Airtel University Challenge for at least two seasons.
With KTN TV, John hosted the long-running ‘Summit’ interview programme. His experience involved interviewing Daniel Arap Moi, Robert Mugabe, Wangari Maathai, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, among others.
On the Kenyan film scene, John is a common face that has appeared in high-profile shows such as Showmax and Canal+ the original police procedure drama Crime and Justice, where he appeared as a flawed politician, Barasa.
He has contributed his writing to the Ian Mbagua-led marriage drama series Second Family, and he’s still one of the writers of yet another controversial political thriller, County 49.
JSO’s involvement in these popular Kenyan shows highlights his versatility as an actor and writer. His portrayal of Barasa was so prolific that even when it was meant to be a cameo, he ended up coming back in the second season to reprise the role. Additionally, his continued work on County 49 demonstrates his commitment to tackling controversial political themes in his writing.
John Sibi Okumu’s Awards and accolades
And of course, his commitment to the art has been recognised.
In 2015, the actor, writer, and director was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Sanaa Theatre Awards. In 2022, he received a similar award at the 22-Carthage International Theatre Festival in Tunisia.
He has since taken a step back from acting, especially on stage, stating that, at his age, the stamina required to learn and memorise lines has since waned. John wants to focus his energy on writing.
In 2021, Sibi-Okumu launched his collection of plays. A total of five stage plays and one radio drama provide a study of Kenyan society.
Surprisingly, it was in New York that he was inspired to turn Kenyan society into the star of his productions. Then he was seeing August Wilson’s Fences on Broadway; the play explores the evolving African-American experience and examines race relations, among other themes.
The play showed him how effective it is to dramatise the issues of ordinary people.
“That production blew my mind. I read up more on August Wilson, and it transpired that he was analysing African American society from the beginning of the 20th century till the end of it.”
He noticed that every ten-year cycle, August would do a play. He wasn’t doing them chronologically, but he was going to do them.
The idea of telling the story of a people through dramatic structure gave him the focus.
‘If you look at Role Play, there is a fellow born in 1930; my father was born in 1929; Mwai Kibaki was born in the 1930s… Most of the founding fathers were born at this time.
At the moment, much of what John is doing is writing. A few times, he will do a TV cameo but will still dive back onto the writing pad. He constantly uses Kenya as a canvas, and it always pays off.
Take the example of his 2014 play Kaggia, where he takes on the towering Kenyan revolutionary Bildad Kaggia. It is one of those stories that every Kenyan needs to watch. Bildad Kaggia was one of the Kapenguria Six. A rare breed of politician who was dedicated to improving the lives of the people he represented—something he paid heavily for – he died poor.
Bildad Mwaganu Kaggia was a Kenyan nationalist, activist, and politician. Kaggia was a member of the Mau Mau Central Committee. Kaggia is one independence hero that has been documented in various ways, from literature to theatre. When Kaggia was staged at the Kenyan National Theatre in 2014, Harry Ebale brought the revolutionist to life, while Lydia Gitachu played Wambui, his wife, and Yriimo Mwaura played Njoki, the daughter.
Besides observing Kenya, however, John says that for a writer to improve their craft, they need to listen to people, especially those whose ideas they respect.
“I’m not a lone ranger; I bounce my ideas around, starting with my immediate family. For example, with Meetings, and with Minister Karibu, I sent a prototype to Mhsai Mwangola,” he says.
Mwagola is a scholar, performer, director, and managing partner of the Orature Collective, an artivist group, and also one of the founders of the intellectual platform, The Elephant, both based in Nairobi, Kenya.
JSO also says there isn’t a thing such as a ‘good title’; one may simply need something that captures their agenda. For instance, he says Meetings captured the essence of a reunion of various disparate groups.
“Any title will do as long as you can get people to come to watch it. A title is the only indulgence the writer has- it’s like naming your child; no one has the right to express any views on the name that you choose for your child.”
John is still creating masterpieces; he says there are plays he has written that have yet to hit the stage. He has also written some for radio. One of these is Dinner With Her Excellency, an audio drama he wrote for the BBC Playwriting Competition.
Dinner with Her Excellency is about a bunch of people at a round table discussing the 2010 Kenyan constitution. – This is a very JSO kind of production.
For a man who has seen it all, John hasn’t stopped dreaming bigger and trying to do better. This is mainly because he believes in seeking knowledge from those who were there before him and tries to make himself better for the future.
“Anybody who has artistic intentions must mire themselves in what came before. You are not the first person to write a poem, a novel, or a play; you are not a genius either. Have respect for what came before. The only way a writer can go a step further is by reading anything, literally. Read, read as much as you can.”