Carnival Girl: Julisa Rowe’s formidable acting skills shine in this musical


Julisa Rowe at Carnival Girl at Baraka Opera House, Lavington, on August 2, 2023. PHOTO | POOL

Who knew that Julisa Rowe’s Carnival Girl was practically a musical, filled with so much song and dance, all of which Ms Rowe had mastered with impeccable style and enchanting grace?

Who knew that Carnival Girl would allow Ms Rowe to perform a full range of characters and emotions in one solo production which she staged at the Social House in Nairobi’s Lavington recently?

And who knew that she could be so captivating from the moment the show opened in a rush of upbeat, adrenalin-filled energy that never flagged?

Read: NCAI spotlights land issues in iconic Kenyan art show

Only the ending took us down when the carnival girl found something the BDLife could not disclose. We would be a big-time spoiler for all those who have not yet seen the show if I disclosed the ending.

Ideally, Julisa will restage this glorious production so the rest of Nairobi can come to watch the electrified performance by a woman we has most recently seen wearing a director’s hat, not an actor’s.

Julisa directed Mugambe Nthiga last month in Every Brilliant Thing and late last year in two separate Biblically-based productions, one by men about prominent leaders in the Bible’s Old Testament and one by women about prominent women from both the Old and New Testament.

In both cases, she managed to draw from Kenya’s deep well of wonderful actors to attract some of the best in the business.

Julisa is an outstanding director. But Carnival Girl allowed her to stretch out and display her formidable skills as an actor who ran the gamut from child-like innocence and bewilderment at life to a mean-hearted clown.

She is one of those rare performers who can flip in a flash from one character and emotion to the next without breaking her stride.

The story itself is basically about a little girl born into a family with seven children and a father who goes off to war, gets captured and stuck in an enemy prison until who knows when, and a mom who dies soon after her last baby is born.

So, the children deliberate (and here we have already seen Julisa start as a circus barker enthusiastically welcoming his audience, then becoming a teenage boy among a host of youth deciding they can’t raise a baby since they are babes themselves.

So they decide the Carnival is the best place to take a partner. Its members live like a family, the youth rationalise, so they will be able to look after the babe.

Without asking anyone, they drop the baby off, slipping it inside one of the carnival tents. The babe grows up to become a sweet but lost creature who wants to know her name, meaning her identity.

Nobody in the Carnival can give her one until she finally meets a Pastor and then things happen. The father appears, and she finally gets a name.

It might sound simple, but not the way Julisa tells the story. Every single character the girl encounters has a different voice, demeanour, walk, attitude, and overall style.

She does them all, from the singer-narrator, carnival ringmaster, and fat lady to the acrobat, crusty clown, and tap dancer to the pastor who reminds her she has a heavenly father up until her father magically reappears and finally gives her a name.

The set for her performance is simple and sparse. It’s a high chair where she sits when she is not dashing around the stage, which is what she does most of the time since she demonstrates her scenes with vivid and colourful verbal and body language.

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Her interpretation of characters is always with an immediacy that gives each one an identity of their own.

The rest of her set has a few musical instruments lying around, but no one uses them. Her sound system is impeccable.

The music is prerecorded but finely tuned so that its sound effects are right on time. Ms Rowe has neither an operatic voice nor a folksy county-Western style.

But the beauty of pop music is that if you can carry a tune especially if your voice has a wide unbroken range, which she has, then you can sing to your heart’s content and the public will love what you sing.

The main thing is to sing with conviction, and Julisa has plenty of that. Her performance lights up the stage and the little carnival girl has her query into identity as an existential quest finally answered, and we’re happy for that, Abigail.

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