I have seen films with actors doubling two to three roles in a show, and the results are amazing. During the ongoing Kampala International Theatre Festival (KITF), I was introduced to a whole new range of raw talent.
I witnessed artists take on more than three roles which to me is a display of pure virtuosity.
Take for example Kemiyondo Coutinho’s display of prowess during the performance of ‘Kawuna…You are It’. She takes on multiple roles in the play, which she wrote five years ago and delivers. At one instance she is a young child who has lost her pet. She becomes the pastor’s wife, a friend, a mother, a commander of a terror group, among others including taking up animal characters.
Taking up a role is challenging in itself. Embracing so many roles only increase the risk of messing up the whole play, but not to some actors. Kemiyondo, for instance, was keen on how each character is represented. In one instance, she is jumping across the room, after assuming the character of a child. In another role, she is a mature, spiritual yet insecure lady who constantly sees faults in others as they go on with a sermon in Church. Yet in another role, she is an owl, a friend to the child character. As an owl, Kemi’s voice not only changes but also adopts a rich English accent. All over a sudden, she is an army commander who instructs the killing of a defiant member of the terror group. And in all these, she does not mumble incoherently or show a sign of weary. She delivers throughout her play that is focused on dismantling HIV/Aids hierarchies in the society.
According to Kemiyondo, she sets a time to learn and experience each character separately. Responding to questions during Q&A session, Kemi revealed that during practice, she devotes up to a day to each of her characters. During this period, she immerses herself fully into the character, picking some details that would work for her and the character.
At a different event, on the sidelines of the festival, the actress noted that she practices chakra (opening her energy points) prior to performance. Kemi who has written a number of plays focusing on social issues affecting Africa, including women empowerment said this helps her to remain composed during an act.
While Kemi emphasizes on designating time to familiarize herself with her characters, Giovanni Ortega who performed Allos: the Story of Carlos Bulason focuses on “memorizing all the lines,” and while at it, he gets to “know the characters and take up their roles.”
Commenting on tonal variations used by actors to symbolize character change in a show, Ortega noted that he works with all his characters in a subtle way, incorporating body gestures and minimal costume changes every now and then. He does not employ a lot of changes in his voice, but a keen actor will notice a change of role symbolized by wearing a cap, removing it at some instances, and other slight costume changes. All in all, you would not have missed his physical gestures that were well employed throughout the play.
Kemi employed voice variations to indicate a change of character and at no one single point did she forget. I was intrigued by how she would speak one word in a different voice and another word right after, in a different voice.
When it comes to mentoring young and upcoming artistes, Kemi provided a good platform for them to see at hand what she has been training them. She maintained composure in all the acts, bringing in various emotions where required and sustaining a good pace in her monologue.
In a different room, five young talented artists are reading ‘The Most Wretched of the Earth’. The five take on at least two roles to represent all the characters in the play. Under the guidance of the director, Serumuga Kalundi, the protégés deliver in all the roles, with lead character Minga, captivating the crowd the most with his musical but sarcastic laughter.
Speaking after the performance, the director appreciated the actors for owning the text and developing strong characters out of it.
William Chewe Musonda, the writer of the play which was customized to capture some of the local ills such as corruption, noted that the play was well delivered. The Zambian writer added: “A play isn’t like a book. It is more palatable and relatable.” When he was requested to bring the play in Uganda, he willingly accepted. He hopes that through his writing, some of the societal ills can be addressed.
While Kemi practices chakra before a performance, Ortega ensures that he gets a good rest and runs through his lines.
From Kemi to Ortega, to the upcoming artists at KITF, delivering in multiple role plays is draining. On the other hand, the audience enjoys the double fun to watch a performer taking up two or more roles in a show.