Checkmate needs an extreme makeover
Checkmate is a strategic term used in chess to indicate that the king is hopelessly cornered, attacked, and finished off by any opponent of the king.
It can also be used as a metaphor for anyone who is under attack and has no way of escaping. In the case of Howard Lumumba’s play, “Checkmate”, the one being checked out is Kingston (Jarad Itaro) although we don’t know that until the end of the play.
And oh, how long it took to get to this point.
Characters like Wambugu (Prince Yaya), the landlord who normally carries all the keys, and especially the one that opens the exit to the Black and White estate, was excruciatingly slow to respond to neighbors who wanted him to open that door.
In fact, he never had the nerve to tell them he didn’t have the key. But his shots around the bush got him thrown off the roof by Kingston. No one seemed to care, not even the cop who had come to meet the local deputy.
Wambugu was not alone in repeating his lines and dragging out stories until it got tedious. Getting to the point wasn’t something the Checkmate characters seemed to want to do. But we can’t really blame them.
One could also blame Howard Lumumba’s screenplay or even his directing or both since he is responsible for both. In fact, Checkmate is the perfect example of the peril to which one can expose oneself when one person is both playwright and director of a play.
On the one hand, we would like to congratulate the writer for entrusting us with his script. On the other hand, when one person is both writer and director, the danger is that there will be no one to edit the writer and no one to criticize the director.
So if the text needs to be cut or the action needs to be snappier or the dialogue simpler, none of that is likely to happen. These are issues we have seen in Checkmate.
It wasn’t a problem that most of the game took place in flashbacks of Kingston. He had played chess with his daughter Princess () and talked about how important it was for her to have a backup – a plan B in her life. Otherwise, she could find herself in a difficult situation like him. Then he went into flashback.
We find ourselves in the black and white slum where the neighbors bemoan the current situation in Kenya, especially unemployment and the high cost of living. When he arrives on the scene, he is called crazy because he is a little crazy.
He has no money and his daughter demands school fees as soon as possible because she is already two weeks late. We learn that he might be one of the robbers who steal groceries for food.
So it’s no surprise to see him on the roof of the tallest building in the slum, preparing to kill himself as it seems to be the only way for Kingston to experience checkmate in his life.
The neighbors all have their own concerns, but they come together to beg him not to jump. On the other hand, when Wambugu gets up there with him, the neighbors are so angry that he won’t open the only exit from the slum, it looks like they might be ready to lynch him if they had chance.
What apparently saves Kingston from suicide and imprisonment is the area’s candidate for MP who uses his situation as a propaganda tool and public relations trick. Kingston is treated as a charity case which she helps.
It’s her way of showing her constituents that she can do it for one or many at a time. It’s to show that she cares about the poor and is ready to go to any lengths to help them.
But then we come back to the present and find that the congresswoman never kept her promise to Kingston. He’s still stuck and unemployed. The worst part is that his wife plans to leave him and take Princess with her. Thus, in real time, Kingston is blocked and about to be subdued. And so the story ends.
Talk about a weak ending. The entire cast of neighbors had already left the stage. Now it’s Kingston’s turn. But wait, there are so many problems that are never solved. What is clear is that ‘Checkmate’ needs an extreme makeover before returning to the stage.