Can KITF Save Ugandan Theatre From Entropy?
Wobusobozi Amooti Kangere
I have often wondered what makes theatre so individually unique from other experiences of art. You watch a great film and you are amazed by it. You hear a good song and it moves you. You read a good book and you are immersed in it. But with theatre, the world you knew before you enter the hall is suspended. You are a being in a different world. For people who have never been to theatre this might sound a little melodramatic. I always say though, you only have to watch a good play to understand why theatre is special.
All the world’s best actors know the secret: Movies & TV can make you rich and famous. Theatre makes you good. That is why the great ones keep going back even when they have reached the mountain top. Denzel Washington puts it best: “…almost every time I was nominated for an Academy Award, I was up against people who were either 20 years older than me or were British,’ he says. “All the actors I consider to be greats — Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, De Niro, Meryl Streep — they’re all theater. And the younger ones I consider great — Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Day-Lewis and Kenneth Branagh — are all British and they’re all theater.
For all its thrills, theatre can be torturous if the play is bad; a fate that has befallen Ugandan theatre these past few years. In a recent interview for Ibua Journal, Philip Luswata expressed similar concern about the state of things in Ugandan theatre. Young actors today, he says, are lazy. They do not want to apply themselves. How will be they become good if they don’t put in the work? And if they don’t become good, what becomes of theatre?
I was lucky to get my introduction to theatre in its golden days. I was a child in the early 90s when the likes of Alex Mukulu and Bakayimbira were at the top of their game.
I still remember my first brace with theatre to this day. Alex Mukulu in his own play, 30 Years of Bananas, which Philip Luswata resurrected earlier this year. I was too young to understand the full context of the play but vivid scenes from the staging played in my mind every night for weeks. I haven’t felt that sensation again since then. But for the first time in decades, I felt it at the opening night of Kampala International Theatre Festival’s 6th Edition.
2019 has been a good year for theatre. From Philip Luswata’s 30 Years of Bananas, Adong Anyira’s Niqabi Ninja, to Deborah Asiimwe’s Footprints In Memory and Red Hills, theatre stages in Kampala are experiencing a resurgence of plays that are technically excellent and rich in ideas that tickle your brain. These shows have tackled serious themes with wit and humour, displaying a directing and performance vigour reminiscent of theatre’s golden days in Kampala. The plays at #KITF19 have this energy too.
I read once about something called the butterfly effect. It’s a principle of chaos theory which holds that a small change in one state can result in large differences in a later state. If you ask me, I’d tell you that the reason we are experiencing a resurgence of theatre is because of KITF. Since coming to Kampala six years ago, KITF has staged world shows that challenge how we do theatre in Uganda, and for those to whom it matters, that challenge has translated into higher standards for playmakers just as Bayimba’s music festival did for live music in Kampala.
With the curation falling in the hands of Tebere Arts Foundation, an organisation started by Deborah Asiimwe, the brain behind KITF, #KITF19 has had a serving of plays that are more technical and deeper in subtext than previous years. I hope this is a sign of better times to come for Ugandan theatre.
Reflections on the Opening Night
#KITF19 opened with a night of ‘one-man’ shows in which writers starred in their own plays. John Rwothomack wrote and starred in Far Gone, a physically demanding play about a child who gets abducted by LRA rebels and becomes a murderous child-soldier. Fida Zidan wrote and starred in Last Day of Spring, a philosophical exploration of loss through the eyes of a young village girl in Palestine. Both shows got standing ovations. A rare thing in Ugandan theatre. Tough, tough crowd.
Rwothomack’s Far Gone was an excellent choice to open the festival. His performance embodies the essence of classical performance theatre — physicalising the internal world of the characters. Rwothomack and his directors create in this play a physical language that transmits the characters’ emotional states more succinctly than words can. The audience is instantly swept into the world of the play as an ear to the storyteller — a witness to events no ear has heard about, a participant in the action (holding props) — as Rwothomack folds his body to form the child narrator here, then swells it up to form the LRA commandant there.
Far Gone is not a new story for Ugandans. In fact, some audience members I spoke to expressed disappointment in the absence of new perspectives in Rwothomack’s take on the child-soldier. It was apparent too during the post-show talkback. When asked what made the LRA child-soldiers differelnt from child-soldiers elsewhere in the world — and though the questioner did not cite examples, he was presumably hinting at NRA, an older rebel force that famously used child-soldiers but never got the rap for it — Rwothomack stuttered twice and made some vague concession about child-soldiers being everywhere and having common experiences with Okumu, the child narrator in his play. But it was clear from his tone that whatever analogous connections there are between LRA’s use of child-soldiers and other militant groups, they were not his mind at the time of writing.
I for one see no reason why a play, or any story, should set its self up to tell everyone’s story. A play, like any other story, is driven by a central character, and in Rwothomack’s play, Okumu’s reality is ably conveyed. If the play makes no seminal comment on the child-soldier problem, that was not the playwright’s intention.
Wherever the hammer falls on Rwothomack’s writing, there was universal agreement among audience members that his performance was outstanding. Director Moji Elufowoju opted for a minimalist approach, using a handful of props to anchor the child narrator, and Rwothomack’s body and voice to convey the words and personality of every character in the play. And there are several.
Rwothomack says he worked with two movement directors to develop the physical language and voice intonation for each character. There is Okumu, the main character, his brother, a captive, a rebel commandant, and several other characters that make cameo appearances over the play’s 60 minutes running time. In some cases transitions are made through stylized walks that demand athletic agility, but there are several moments where Rwothomack runs a venn through the audience and back into the orchestra pit where he chose to set up his main stage — the entire house is his stage.
I couldn’t help comparing his approach with Ntare Mwine’s Biro. I was stunned by the contrast in direction. Mwine stands in one place and uses voice and slight changes in gesture to transform from one character to another, which makes it easier to shift between characters in dialogue. Rwothomack on the other hand goes for the herculean task of giving each character their own position and posture. There are some pretty intense scenes, like where the commandant introduces Okumu to his first gun and guides him to his first kill, for which Okumu is baptized Finisher. Rwothomack is a laid-back character outside the theatre hall. In this scene he brings an intensity to the stage that transforms the hall into that jungle where a young Okumu must learn to kill to stay alive.
Last Day of Spring was the opposite of Far Gone in its approach. If Rwothomack is a blazing furnace, Fida Zidan takes on a complex commentary on loss with cool humour. Based on material from her own life, as well as Director Zizar Zo’ubi’s experiences, Last Day of Spring is a story about Hassra, a young Palestinian girl whose brother is killed in service of the Israeli army, and whose family supports peace with Israel despite losing its ancestral lands to Israeli land grabs. Most of the play is a build-up of Hassra’s relationship with her brother, an avid fan of mixed martial arts who is conscripted into the Isreali army and gets killed in action.
The narrative is laced with nuance. A young and innocent Hassra recounts the changes in her family as she grows up, but the lucid clarity of a child’s gaze sees the sharp bite marks of history’s teeth gnawing at a simple village life without the clouds of adult politics. An international wrestling bout in the capital signals the invasion of western culture; a nuanced jab at the Israeli national character, while anchoring the love of martial arts which bonds Hassra to her brother. Her brother will suddenly vanish and return with a load of “olive-green, one-button shirts” that Hassra also sees on every clothesline in the village, as if “everybody went away and bought the same shirts as her brother…” Later, during the talkback, when Fida and Zizar tell that all Palestinian males aged 18 were required to do compulsory military service or face jail, that tiny moment gains new significance. The play has many of these.
My friend Kagayi Ngobi, who has become a controversial advocate for composing literature in native languages, had to leave before the play. Had he been there he would have been glad to see that this play was in Arabic and Hebrew, languages that no one in the audience could speak or understand, yet when the curtains came down they gave Fida a standing ovation for a full fifteen minutes. An English version of the script was projected on a screen adjacent to the stage. It was disrupting at first, having to shift the eye from screen to stage to catch the expressions, however, the story was so engaging that once you settled into it, the language’s strangeness became an inseparable part of the play’s atmosphere.
It was a great opening night for the festival. And while there were many theatre-heads in the audience, it would have been good to see more playwrights and directors and actors at the festival. KITF is the only event that brings world theatre to Kampala. The plays they feature are normally from countries with diverse theatrical traditions, which makes it a great space for theatre practitioners to learn new tricks. A number of the faces volunteering as runners and stage managers this year are young and common in theatre spaces. Perhaps they will pick up a work ethic that sends good ripples across Kampala’s theatre fraternity.
#KITF19 opened on Tuesday, 26th November and closes on Saturday, 30th November. A daily pass is 20K only. Make it a point to watch shows running today and tomorrow. Absolutely worth your while.