Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman

Copyrighted Work

Taken from:


Production of Death and the Maiden

A Play by Ariel Dorfman

Submitted to:

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH
Riverside Drive, Riverside Green Suites – Baobab Suite
P.O. Box 41607- 00100

Nairobi, Kenya

Naomi Maina
Senior Project Officer
Social Justice, Reconciliation & National Cohesion Project

Telephone:   + 254 20 2667118
Fax: + 254 20 4228999
Mobile: + 254 722 813730 / 725 109656

Implementing Organisation and Authorised Representative:

The Arts Canvas

Box 63590, Nairobi, 00619, Kenya

Mũmbi Kaigwa

Managing and Artistic Director

E-mail: mumbi@the****

Project Period: November 2011

Date submitted: November 2011


The Arts Canvas works to find ways of reconciling different communities and strengthening their sense of identity through live performance, documentaries, discussions, workshops, and interviews.

It is with this mission in mind that we sought to bring a production of the play Death and the Maiden to the Kenyan public in November 2011. The play, written by the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, draws from actual events in Chile in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the period following the removal of the dictator Augusto Pinochet from power. The play describes a country in which the protagonists are living in an uneasy transition to democracy with the new government attempting to punish the human rights violations of an outgoing regime. In the story a Commission has been established to investigate the crimes of the dictatorship.

It was our view that the subject of this play would resonate with members of the Kenyan public and be immediately significant to a wide audience, and, that in light of ongoing public discussions on the implementation of the new Kenyan Constitution, performance of this work would provide an opportunity for dialogue and debate regarding issues of transitional justice, reconciliation, restitution.

Mumbi wrote to Ariel Dorfman after the play had closed, and he wrote back with this:

I have been crazy-busy (which is a good sort of craziness), but unable to find even a quiet interval to tell you how moved I am by your letter and experience.

This play was really written more for Nairobi than for London or Madrid or New York, even if I must pass through those Western cities first, so it is so important to know that it is once again relevant there.


The Arts Canvas, in a co-production with Phoenix Theatre, staged 11 performances of Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman over the course of three weeks in November 2011. The show marked the start of a two-year retrospective of Mumbi Kaigwa’s 40 years in theatre.

Two moderated sessions, organised by our partners GIZ and TJRC, were conducted on 4 November (opening night) and 17 November. Audience members were invited to discuss their impressions of the play’s subject matter as well as to reflect on its relevance to Kenya and Kenya’s ongoing transition.

Further feedback was also gathered in the way of questionnaires, which were handed out to audience members on most nights. A selection of the respondents’ comments are at the end of this report.


The producers of Death and the Maiden are very happy with the results of the production. With the travel warnings, advisories and feelings of insecurity that followed the Kenya government’s incursion in Somalia as well as the two separate hand-grenade explosions in downtown Nairobi in the weeks preceding opening night, we were very encouraged by the turnout. With 120 seats in the auditorium, our total audience count of 759 audience members for the 11 performances is equivalent to 57.5 percent participation, coming just slightly short of our expected outcome of “audience attendance of not less than 60 percent”.

Another reason for this shortfall may be possibly that some of our audience members were returning to the theatre after a period away and therefore were unaware of the increased traffic congestion in the Central Business District, which resulted in several of our audience members giving up, such as this person who found that even on a Saturday afternoon 1½ hours were not sufficient for the 5 km trip from Westlands to Parliament Road, and who wrote the following on the social networking platform, FaceBook:

Mũmbi, my mea culpa. 2 of the empty seats at 3 pm yesterday were mine. My mistake? Leaving Westlands shortly after 1:30 pm… At 2:45 pm I had just made it to the University of Nairobi roundabout, about 5km away and [had reached the] GPO roundabout at 3.

Unfortunately, planning to move around Nairobi nowadays requires inordinate logistical planning, even on weekends. Langata Road yesterday had people stuck for upto 3 hours between Nyayo Stadium and Bomas of Kenya.

This introduces unreliability and inevitably makes people shy away from the work of participating in events or activities outside easy planning options.

Which is a great pity for theater lovers trying to get to the Phoenix.


The publicity campaign consisted of press reviews, text messages, radio, particularly Capital FM, and print adverts. Copies of all reviews and press adverts are available and can be see in the Photo Gallery. In addition, the production was publicised via the Phoenix Theatre and The Arts Canvas’ respective websites and mailing lists, by word-of-mouth, as well as through the social networking platforms of Facebook and Twitter. Posters and programmes also provided additional publicity.


Our opinion was that the play would be relevant to Kenyans and have significance to an audience of Kenya citizens and residents. This was confirmed, as is evidenced by the audience members’ written and spoken comments. The difficulty of speaking about Kenya and her painful past was borne out by the contributions to the after-show discussions by audience members made up of civil society officials and members of the general public. We recognize that the transition to democracy is an ongoing one, and we are very pleased to have added our voices to this process.

In an article on the history of the donor community’s adoption of theatre for development in Kenya, Bantu Mwaura wrote that theatre can be used to involve the target community in “defining its own problems and [in] designing strategies to deal with their own challenges.” By virtue of being a live medium, theatre “allows for information to be configured to fit specific situations and to accommodate socio-cultural differences, while responding to specific and immediate challenges in ways that neither the electronic nor print media are able to do.” [1]

A play like Death and the Maiden speaks openly of those things that we have been conditioned by years of silence, not even to think about. No doubt these issues have been dealt with in depth by the media but often the newspaper report or television programme does not deal with the complexities of the subject. Rather the reports see the issues in question in “black and white”. Live theatre gives audiences a chance to see the humanity as well as the complexity of a given situation and shows that, however untidily, we can be honest with ourselves and get beyond pain.

By supporting this sort of work GIZ and the TJRC (as well as other civil society organisations) are in a position to hear the views and opinions of an important portion of the public they serve; the middle-class. It is easy for a person to ignore her/his own implicit role in the indignities suffered by more unfortunate citizens if they are comfortable in the knowledge that “it didn’t happen to me”. It is our belief however that support for this kind of work allows our funding partners to help us influence and sensitise a middle-class who might otherwise neglect the important role they can play in the decisions that will drive the future of their nation. Theatre has a tendency of staying in the mind for a long time, and over a career spanning 30 years I have met many people, performers as well as audience members, whose lives have been changed by one of our performances – giving rise to what we all want, true participation, even after the show.

[1] Bantu Mwaura, “Dancing to the Donor’s Tune” in Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits: An Anthology” Rasna Warah (ed.)


  1. Did you enjoy the play?

99% of respondents said YES.

“I found that it was a reflection of our current situation and the timing is impeccable.”

  1. Did you learn something from the play that you wish to share with others?

“The Power of Truth”

“The Power of an Apology”

“Human rights violations, victims, suffering, repentance and the challenge to build a future out of all that.”

“It made me think.”

  1. What specifically could you relate with from the play’s theme to the Kenyan context? In what way?

“Total Power Corrupts”

“It draws a parallel to what victims have endured over the years.”

“The need of victims to tell their stories, and even if forgiveness is not possible.”

“Some people May not always confess the real truth.”

“The post-election violence victims. They can never move on fully till the perpetrators are held accountable. I fee that justice is necessary and long overdue.”

  1. Can a Truth Commission like TJRC-Kenya prepare a country for reconciliation and healing as the country deals with its past human rights violations?

“Yes. But it has to focus on truth AND justice. Not just politics.”

“We cannot forget; can we forgive?”

“Yes. Victims need to feel that there is (a) real remorse from the perpetrators”

“It can play a part but has a limited mandate. Govt and citizens alike must have political will.”

“Yes it can, but only if the findings are made public and the perpetrators held accountable can we fully move on as a country.”

“Yes, if they actually do what they are supposed to do.”

“Could do better. Earn credibility by showing short-term wins.”


“They can try… some wounds are generational.”

  1. Any other comments or suggestions?

“More advertisement – publicity.”

“I liked the comments from the public.”

“The Commission must be allowed to finish its work.”

“I loved it. Am looking forward to the next one.”

“A rewarding system to encourage not only witnesses but also confessors to come forward.”

“More of these plays need to be brought to Kenya for Kenyans to see it’s been done and it’s possible.”

Related Performances