Kenny Mann's Mythical Performance Out of Africa

“Naisula — A Prayer for a White Woman, Her African Servant, a Shaman, and a Spirit Child,”
At her house in Sag Harbor, Kenny Mann, right, hosted her friend Nickson Parmisa, a Maasai chief from Kitengela, Kenya, a town not far from where she grew up. Mark Segal

Kenny Mann was born in Kenya in 1946 and lived there until she graduated from the University of Nairobi in 1968, when she “left Kenya for good,” according to her website. If you read only that statement, you might not realize that the filmmaker and writer has never really left, at least not in the ways that really matter.

“My brother Oscar lives there, and I try to go back every year,” she said during a recent conversation at her house in Sag Harbor. Not only was her brother there for a visit, so was Nickson Parmisa, a Maasai chief from Kitengela, a village approximately 20 miles from Nairobi and close by the farm on which Ms. Mann grew up.

Her many projects on Africa include documentary films and a series of books on African history. She speaks Swahili, “better than most white people, but not very well. None of us speak it very well.” Several years ago, she taught film at schools in Kenya.

Her most recent project is “Naisula — A Prayer for a White Woman, Her African Servant, a Shaman, and a Spirit Child,” an epic poem she wrote and has now staged for a performance at Guild Hall on Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the venue’s JDT Lab, which is devoted to works in progress.

“ ‘Naisula’ grew organically out of my lifetime of experiences in Africa,” she said. “Growing up during the colonial period in Kenya, I witnessed some very ugly scenes between white women and their African servants, whom they often treated with utter disdain and cruelty. ‘Naisula’ is based on such a relationship.” 

In the mythical tale, set in Kenya in the late 1950s among the Maasai in the landscape where Ms. Mann grew up, a shaman finds ways to heal the wounded souls of a white woman and her African servant, in part through the intercession of a spirit child named Naisula, a common Maasai name that means “woman of power.”

“For me, that name is a dedication to women, especially to Maasai women, because that’s who I feel most connected to, but also to women everywhere. Women are rising, and women are extremely important in Africa.” 

While Ms. Mann has written poetry before, “I wouldn’t call myself a poet. I just sat down and wrote it. It came very quickly, and I haven’t had to revise it a great deal.” After giving a reading for some friends and realizing it was very visual, she submitted it to Josh Gladstone, the artistic director of Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater.

“I don’t think they knew what they were getting into when they accepted it,” she said, “because many of the JDT Lab shows are staged readings. Mine is almost a full production. I want people to see it, and I want to take it further.”

Ms. Mann has established a page on gofundme.com that will not only help fund the project but will also help Maasai girls in Mr. Parmisa’s village. “I’ve known Kenny for six years now,” he said, “and Oscar for 20. When she comes to Kenya we share with her what we’re going through.” 

One of the challenges he faces is “rescuing” teenage Maasai girls from homes where they may be forced to marry much older men, undergo female genital mutilation, or even be sold off in exchange for livestock. 

“We talk to the girl and tell her it is better for her to go to school and graduate and then be married when she is in a position to support herself in a sustainable way,” he said. In addition, the law stipulates that any girl below the statutory age must be given the opportunity attend school. 

“So when you bring all these things together, we get support from the mother, support from the girl, support from the government and me as a chief, and then in the end we convince the old man that this girl should go back to school.”

“We started Empakasi High School three years ago on village land set aside by our fathers as a site for a local church,” Mr. Parmisa said. “At first a politician wanted to subdivide the land and share it with his friends. I told them no, this land is public, and we must build a school. Then I spoke to a member of parliament, and we were allowed to proceed.”

Opened with two girl students, the school now has 250 girls and 100 boys in attendance and serves as a sanctuary where Maasai girls are relatively safe and can complete their education. A portion of every donation to the project goes to the women of Kitengela and their daughters.

Casting for “Naisula” was done in New York City by Ms. Mann and Sue Crystal, a casting director, who selected 10 actors from almost 200 applicants. The story is narrated by Maria Bacardi, who lives in Springs, and Ms. Mann. There are several monologues but only a few occasions when the characters speak to one another. 

In addition to the white woman (Bevin Bell-Hall), the servant (Lambert Tamin), the shaman (Dianne Nixon), and the spirit child (Adrienne Hardin), six other actors portray ancestors and, in a few cases, double as animals. 

“And then you have these creatures we don’t actually see, including the praying mantis, the hummingbird, the chameleon, and the yellow dog. You hear music, and as I talk about them the stage goes dark so everyone must listen for a moment before the action starts again. Those creatures, especially the praying mantis and the chameleon, always play a big role in African mythology.”

There is also dance, choreographed by Marcea Daiter, that is based on the Katherine Dunham technique and on traditional dances from Rwanda. Lutz Rath (cello) and Tyler Sussman (did­geridoo, flute) composed and will perform the original music.

Sophie Howell of Sag Harbor made baboon masks based on drawings by the Southampton artist Paton Miller and headdresses based on those of the Omo River tribes in Ethiopia. “It has been an extraordinary collaboration between talented local and Manhattan people who are interested in this project,” said Ms. Mann.

The program is free, but advance reservations are required and can be made on Guild Hall’s website.