The stage is warmly lit, with a couch centrally placed, creating a rich ambiance to usher in an adaptation of a short story, Tropical Fish, by Doreen Baingana.
The conference room we’re in at Ndere Cultural Centre sits about fifty people. They have come to see the story brought to life by Rehema Nanfuka.
Soft African music is oozing from the hi-fi speakers strategically placed at the stage and various corners of the room, creating a sonic illusion.
The audience is dead silent now. The young actress with long legs and a slim, well-toned figure fitted in a nicely tailored African dress staggers into the stage, a tonic bottle in hand. She is smiling awkwardly- that knowing Mona Lisa smile that an experienced old woman gives a naughty granddaughter who thinks she is well versed with the things of the world.
She informs the audience that the Swahili song was what her lover (Peter) used to serenade her with. It was the song he mumbled when he wanted to make love to her. She interjects her narration and sings: “Malaika, nakupenda malaika. Malaika, nakupenda malaika……..”
“Are you turned on?” Rehema playing Christine (the character’s name) asks a lady in the audience who nods in disagreement. The actress chuckles as she sips her tonic, and sarcastically tells the audience that neither was she.
That marks the introduction of the play based on a young campus girl (Christine) who meets an old white businessman in Kampala. In pursuit of a better and more exciting life, the girl falls into the trap of Peter. Her ignorance and naivety lead her into the house of her newly found soon-to-be lover. While her plan was to escape her world, and immerse into a wealthy, fun-filled life, she soon finds herself in the master bedroom with a naked white old man. She does not object or agree to his advances. The first night becomes one of the many. She enjoys expensive gifts, exciting experiments such as bubble baths, and attention.
“I lay on the bed in my clothes. Peter took off his clothes and draped them neatly folded over a chair… Then he took my blouse and pants off methodically, gently, like it was the best thing to do, like I was sick and he was the nurse, and I just lay there. In the same practical way he lay down and stroked me…, put on a condom, opened my legs, and stuck his penis in. I couldn’t bring myself to hold him in any convincing way… One thought was constant in my head…: I was having sex with a white man. It was strange because it wasn’t strange,” an excerpt from the book which the actress repeated word for word reads.
Baingana’s play made me sympathize with the notion that many women are not aware of the power of their sexuality. During life’s nasty experiences, when women are supposed to defend themselves and their goals, they don’t hold their stand. They are swayed by other people’s decisions and ideologies. They chose to please other people at the expense of their own joy. They carry burdens that they shouldn’t.
Sexuality, as covered in the play, gives the play another perspective. It does not show the usual display of the old white men taking advantage of (sometimes) the ‘willing’ young African girls. It captures issues around womanhood and the impact of neglecting one’s identity.
I attended the theatre performance without reading the play in advance. While this provided me with an opportunity to be surprised by the unfolding events, I was limited in terms of knowing if the actress was able to capture the intentions of the writer clearly and effectively.
My worries are soon settled as the actress, who also acted as the director of the play and the writer settle down for question and answer session.
In the midst of people’s ululations and claps in appreciation of the act, Baingana tells a curious audience that Rehema was not only able to capture her intentions, but also improvised props that added flavor to the play.
“When I saw her come in with a gin bottle at the beginning of the play, I was worried it wouldn’t work,” she said passing a smile to Rehema, remembering the first time the play was brought to life by the actress at a different event. “But Rehema made an exemplary performance,” Baingana said, adding that while she had not appreciated the role of the prop at first, in the end, she realized that the bottle represented Christine’s life at Peter’s house.
After listening to the discussion between the two artists, and between the artists and the audience, I appreciated the creativity of the writer who told the audience that she wrote the story ten years ago. She cherished the fact that the play is still able to address some of the societal issues affecting young people and the society at large.