Watching The Trip to Bountiful, I was transported from Broadway to my hometown of Limuru in Kenya. In the play, Cicely Tyson plays Carrie Watts, an old Black woman living in the oppressive city jungle of Houston, Texas, longing to return back home to the idyllic, rural Bountiful where she was born and raised. Twenty years into her uprooted life, it’s more than a longing—seeing her home and childhood friends have become reasons to live. In Houston, living with her son, Ludie Watts (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and her daughter–in-law Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams), she’s not connected to anyone or anything outside of the small apartment. Uprooted, she’s effectively living in exile.
Jessie Mae, who uses Carrie’s pension to get her hair done at the beauty parlor while sipping on Cokes, controls the household. Ludie, the man of the house, is emasculated and never stands up for his mother. So Carrie has to literally escape from Jessie Mae to begin a long adventurous trip to Bountiful. When she finally gets there, we learn that Bountiful isn’t the idyllic home we thought it was—the farms are gone and everyone has left or died.
The lesson is that home shouldn’t be idealized—bad and good things happen. And yet they are your good and bad things, and there’s no running away from them. The play isn’t calling for escape or nostalgia. Rather than risk the effects of self-imposed exile, the suggestion is that we should draw strength from home.
Each of the characters relates to home differently. For Ludie, the rundown house of his youth looks smaller than he remembers. Jessie Mae doesn’t understand the fuss around the decaying Bountiful. But for Carrie, home is life itself. It’s where she draws the strength to carry on. What Bountiful ultimately reminds us is, not only is it possible to go home again, but life demands it, if only for a day.
Jessie Mae was summarily booed, and the audience’s anger toward her was palpable. When Ludie eventually stood up to her, he earned wild cheers from the crowd. Whenever Ms. Tyson broke into a spiritual, the audience sang along. More than Bountiful’s questions around home, memory and going back, it was the raucous crowd that took me back to Kamirithu, the small village near Limuru where I grew up.
In this village, my father and a friend decided to start a people’s theater. With help from the villagers, they cowrote the play I Will Marry When I Want. Like in The Trip to Bountiful, the play was about recovery of memory. But whereas in Bountiful, it’s a more of a personal recovery, in I Will Marry When I Want, it’s a collective recovery of political memory. So the play was about the struggle of independence against British colonizers and how the authoritarian Black government of Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta betrayed the people’s dreams and hopes.
Like the Black audience on Broadway, the audience in Kamirithu did not separate themselves from the performance. They participated vocally, sang the songs of resistance along with the actors, and got visibly angry with the repressive, exploitative landowners while applauding the resisting characters.
The Kenyatta administration did not want the peasants thinking about revolution, even in a play, and his government banned the production and promptly detained my father without trial. Eventually, the physical theater was burned to the ground by the repressive Moi government in 1986.
The play took me back home in another way. Ms. Tyson’s Carrie reminded me a lot of my late paternal grandmother, Wanjiku Wa Thiong’o. Wanjiku—who watched one of her sons in the armed struggle against British colonizers and her other son detained and forced into exile—was loving, vital, funny, and tough as nail when need be. Like Carrie, she helped us connect to our past through folk stories and songs reminding us of our familial history.
In the end, we all leave someplace—immigrants and migrants, from the country to city, from the South to the North, one neighborhood to the next, youth to old age, until we finally exit from life itself. In this sense, the play is for all of us.
If you can, go see The Trip to Bountiful. If you cannot, take a week, day, an hour, or even a moment and go back to someplace where you can reconnect with your younger self.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, the author of Nairobi Heat and the forthcoming Black Star Nairobi. You can follow him on Twitter @mukomawangugi, and visit MukomaWaNgugi.com.