“Mourning Sun” was one of the most well received acts at the third edition of Kampala International Theatre Festival. The play that speaks about Fistula among young Oromo girls in Ethiopia was premised on the relationship between two childhood sweethearts – Abdi and Biftu, and how their relationship changes as different factors affect them. We sat down to talk to the playwright, Antu Yacob and three of the actors – Adrian Baidoo who plays Abdi, Jevonnah Mayo who plays Biftu and Fadoua Hanine who plays Biftu’s sister, Muwadi. We spoke to them about their experiences in Kampala, the festival, their work with the play and generally about theatre.
Maureen Murora: How did the festival feel for you?
Antu Yacob: It’s been a bit overwhelming but in a very very beautiful way. It’s my first time, as well as the rest of the cast’s first time in Uganda. The beauty of the land is really breathtaking. The beauty of the people, the warm reception we’ve received is also breathtaking. We’re here working so I feel that the trip won’t really land in me until I’m home because my mind has been going the entire time I am here. We had a big group so I had to keep everyone together and make sure we had everything we needed for the production. So it’s just constantly working. So in the work, I was trying to also find time to enjoy being here.
I am just in awe with this facility, this space Ndere Cultural Centre. It’s not just theatre. There’s; a dance troupe here, all of this beautiful art on the walls. This is a compound that’s committed to all forms of art and despite whatever limitations it may have, the artists are still thriving. Listening to the some of the other pieces, I am blown away by the power of Ugandan artists and they’re passionate about wanting to make it even better.
MM: What motivated you to write about fistula and what was that experience for you?
AY: What motivated me was learning about the condition several years ago from from my sister who was at the time a medical student volunteering at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. She told me about the women she met who were scheduled for surgery and that was the first time I heard that this condition even existed. It led me to watch a documentary called “A Walk to Beautiful” and I was inspired to use art to tell the stories of these women so that the conversation can begin.
The experience. I think the emotion of it, the heartbreak of it, hits me when I am actually acting and I am listening to the journey that the actors are on. I think when I am writing, I do not necessarily have that emotional release but when I am an actor and I am hearing the characters like Biftu going through what she’s going through or when Muwadi offers her sister all the money she has, (that scene always makes me cry off stage), it’s really touching. And also the ending scene with Abdi and Biftu when they find some way of connecting and accepting who they are, where they are, that always — is a very vulnerable, touching and moving , hopeful human scene.
Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa: Do you feel that the form of theatre makes writing more powerful? Do you think acting brings more power to the acting and is that why you choose theatre?
I didn’t take any training as a playwright. I had a friend, Sibusiso Mamba, take me under his wing as a mentee. I started taking a few workshops here and there he taught me to always make my script actor proof which means that even if you have actors who aren’t trained or who are not very strong or are really bad, your words and the stage directions and the world you’ve already created is there and the audience will still get it no matter how bad the acting is. That is it and that is what good playwrights learn to do. At the same time, because I am a new playwright because I am an emerging playwright, I have a lot of control over who works on my stuff and I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful artists so that I still have a way of communicating these areas to them. Still, the story is there and the story alone is heartbreaking. What makes it sweet is when you have talented actors who make the words their own and embody the journey. Then they actually show you things that you didn’t even intend to write.
Adrian and Jevonnah just joined this cast recently. We did a production in New York last year with different actors in that production and I have to say that watching them as we were rehearsing and performing, I’ve seen them make the story their own and reveal things to me about the character that I didn’t necessarily know. So that’s powerful.
JBN: What did you as the actors connect with?
Adrian Baidoo: For me it was a very quick process. I jumped on this like 2-3 weeks ago now and I got the script the first day of rehearsal. There was really no room for over analysing anything. I had to quickly find something to connect with Abdi with, something to link us immediately so I could start living in his world so that even when I am memorising lines I am kind of filtering it through his world so things are making sense to me and they stick. So I looked for something immediate to gravitate towards. To be honest it wasn’t too hard because I’m from Ghana and I moved to America when I was seven. I went through a lot of what Abdi went through: Trying to hold onto your culture and assimilate and survive in this new culture that you have to make work only to realise that you’ve lost the culture that really was accepting you and that had always accepted you from the beginning. So that struggle was what I latched onto. Honestly I was also trusting in my scene partners and we tried to let the connection that we formed take place and I’m glad that it looks like we’ve known each other forever because that means it works. Someone today about 20 minutes ago asked us how long we’d known each because he felt that the chemistry was so strong. So I think that it means that we really trusted in each other which we had to do because there was no time to do anything else.
MM: How did you choose the cast?
AY: There are three new actors in this cast. For the original cast that premiered in the New York premiere with Theatre 167 (which is a small off-Broadway theatre company) we had a round of auditions. I had a lot of say in that. The director and I worked together in finding the right faces, the right people for these characters. John who played Doctor Wells and Tru has actually been with the play from the very beginning. Jevonnah did a reading of the play with an organisation that John worked with. For this production we were just trying to move the cast because we didn’t have much rehearsal time. We lost three actors in the original cast so I basically asked actors. Jevonnah I knew had worked on it before and she loves travel. When I spoke to her she immediately said yes. Temesgen was someone we wanted to cast in the original production but he was working on other projects, so when we lost the original actor and we asked him, he was ready to go. The day before rehearsal it was confirmed that we had lost our Abdi so we were basically scrambling and the director said she believed that Adrian could do it. I had never met him before the rehearsal and he hadn’t auditioned, so it was a leap of faith. Now I’m so glad that he’s a part of it. This team just fell together perfectly.
MM: How did it feel acting as sisters?
Jevonnah Mayo : I felt so honoured to even join the project coming here to Uganda. Antu is one of my good friends, so when she called me I just said yes, I’ll do it. As I worked on my script and did my research I learned more and more about the fistula epidemic and it really struck a chord in me. I realised that there are a lot of women and a lot of girls that don’t feel like they have a voice or that they are heard. I’m a storyteller, so if I can tell their story and get it out to people who can be impacted by it, why not. And so I’m driven by that. To even come here to Uganda for this cause and to be among other amazing artists has been a very rewarding experience. A lot of hard work went into putting this show together but I can say that the feeling that I am feeling now is so worth it, worth all of the hard work. I’m just happy to be here.
Fadoua Hanine: And didn’t you say that you had just watched an Ethiopian film when you got the call from Antu?
JM: I watched Difret which Angelina Jolie produced it. I remember watching that film and I thought it was an incredible film. I just feel like it’s a spiritual thing, it’s a divine thing because I didn’t even look to watch it. I was just surfing Netflix and it came up and I said let me watch it and see what this is about.
AY: Difret is based on a true story of a young girl who killed the man that kidnapped and raped her because he wanted to marry her. The culture is called Bride Kidnapping.
FH: My experience has been very rewarding as well, I feel very blessed to be a part of this. Antu has written an incredible story. A world that has dimensional characters. About something that is actually happening in the world and is preventable today. Fistula is preventable. I’ve done so many projects with Antu, 5 in one year. You’ve been such a blessing and a gift.
My father is Moroccan and I’m Afro-Latina, my mother is from the Dominican Republic and so just to be in Uganda, to perform here is a dream come true. And it’s about social issues, women’s issues that I am passionate about and she has given me this vessel to do it through. It’s a blessing.
JBN: How were you able to change easily between Ethiopian and American accents in the play?
AY: When you look at the script I wrote the words in the script phonetically, I wrote them as they are said to make it easier. It’s already written in there- the musicality, the sound, all that is in there.
JM: It was challenging, especially also learning the Amharic text. That was challenging. To memorise something that is not your native tongue, is probably the most challenging thing.
MM: It felt like the real thing for us who were in the audience.
JM: Because we were no longer in America where you can get away with a bad accents, we were a bit nervous about how it would sound here because this is so close to Ethiopia. So we were always thinking “Are they buying it”?.
AY: There were a lot of Ethiopians who came to the New York production and they were shocked by the fact that the actors got the accents right.
AB: For me I felt a little extra challenge because since it was such a quick process, I went to what was in my head, which is a West African accent. You hear West African accents in America more so when people think of Africa, I feel they tend to go in that direction. However that’s for America and we were coming to Uganda, so I remember telling Antu whenever I mess up, tell me. It’s a different sound and it matters. You never want to offend someone’s culture so you want to make sure you get it right,
MM: When you’re choosing the cast, do you deliberately go for people who look like Ethiopians?
AY: When we were casting, for me the look wasn’t as important as the energy of the person. If the person coming in has the energy of the character and they show that they can take direction then that’s fine, we can work around the look. In our New York production, the director was more hung up on looks than I was. It is a consideration particularly with things like height, because you want to make sure the man playing Biftu’s husband has to be “dominating” her. So those kind of things mattered but other than that, for me personally, it’s energy first and can you take direction, do you have some talent? And then looks is great.
MM: You talked about HIV and it was really subtle. What did you feel about that?
I battled often with my mentor about having that line. I always knew that’s what happened to his parents, but I didn’t know if the audience needed to know and didn’t want it to take over Biftu’s journey. But I did want it to be there because it is a reality. I felt that dropping it at the end was probably the best way to do it because you don’t want to be thinking about Abdi and his parents the entire time you’re supposed to be following Biftu’s journey. I battled that because I didn’t want to do an African play about AIDS but then I thought this a socially forward script I’m writing so why would I intentionally bounce off some of the other pressing issues? I didn’t want it to become the main issue, so it’s part of the backdrop of her story.
JBN: I noticed the recurrent appearance of Michael Jackson in the play. Was that intentional?
AY: This is actually about Fistula and Michael Jackson. He’s the first musician I consciously remember listening to and liking. I don’t remember listening to Oromo music before that. As I grew older, my appreciation for his work kept on growing. When he passed away, my mother was very heartbroken. It spoke to me how his music spoke to people all over the world and that was the time my sister was volunteering at the hospital. His presence in the play was the thing that held them together, it symbolised their hope and their dreams, the things they wanted to happen, the things that connected them.
MM: Are there plans of making it a film?
AY: I would like to. It’s been a dream of mine.