There’s a distinct feminine feel to this year’s theatre festival. Perhaps one can posit that theatre is a very feminine act seeing as it involves the evocation of emotion that is most times unwelcome in masculine circles.
Saturday morning at Ndere Centre and I am in the audience of a conversation of 5 of the women involved in five of the productions and students from NYU. Achiro P Olwoch who wrote the edgy “The Surrogate”, Aganza Kisaka who wrote the fifteen minute “Black”, Kemiyondo Coutinho who wrote, directed and performed “Kawuna. You’re It”, Antu Yacob, the writer of “Mourning Sun” and Doreen Baingana the author of “Tropical Fish”.
What informs their work? The Stories are not abstract. They are from personal influence
Achiro states “I like to write about my culture. I feel more at home when I’m out of Uganda”. Her work, she says, is more of self exploration. She writes about what she knows, what she goes through, what her family goes through, what her friends go through. In writing “The Surrogate” she’s writing about things she has heard of
Aganza’s “Black” is from a personal experience. She says “Going abroad is not all rosy”. Having experienced racial profiling and being refused entry into a country because of her race, she would vent it in a play. Race, she says, is a very delicate subject and she found that the best way to freely express herself on the matter would be to place her main character Kisakye in an interrogation room. She adds that years of silently enduring and watching the injustices that she and other women went through gave her reason to finally speak out. This particular work was highly influenced by the work of Frantz Fanon from whom she draws a lot of information for her non black characters.
Antu Yacob was playing with the idea of what it would be like if childhood sweethearts met again in the future. It’s a story that explores the idea of change, of what happens to people spiritually and emotionally as they grow. It explores themes of immigration, identity but most importantly the grave issue of fistula. Her story was influenced by a documentary she watched called “ A Walk to Beautiful” which narrates different stories of girls and women and their experience with fistula. The hope. The gloom. The struggles.It is about people’s actual stories.
Kemi’s play also comes from a personal place but it was also from a discontent about the way the HIV story was being told. “I realised there was this blame game about HIV and it felt like this folk tale fit so well. – Why the mosquito buzzes in people’s ears. ” She set to create characters for the story but remaining grounded in reality, a reality she was aware of in her own life and in the interviews of women with HIV.
Doreen also writes what she observes around her. In the adaptation of her short story she intimates that it is based on relationships in Uganda. The sexual dynamics involved in women’s lives from prostitutes to women in interracial relations; basically a story of a coming of age of a woman. She was keen on seeing this performed but at the same time hoping it stayed true to the words and the story. Storytelling rather than adaptation.
The Work Involved and Its Challenges
The ladies share common challenges and how they overcome them. These range from writing, editing, to letting other people take on their story.
Achiro loved the feedback from her actors. It was a challenge working on a script for the stage for a person who was previously writing for the screen. She had to reckon with the audiences of her play, having to rewrite for home as opposed to the West. Working with directors who might have a different direction for her play than what she has and different actors adding words into her words.
Doreen, being a short story writer, agreed with her explaining that the words are carefully chosen and that it is uncomfortable when whoever takes on the work inserts, omits or amends the words.
Kisaka absolutely decried the fact that she had to let go of the work and see it through another’s eyes. Antu works around this by writing herself into the play and also being confident enough to be present and not worry about changes. When she does think something needs to be changed, she talks about it.
Urgent Issues That Need to Be Written About
When asked about what issues need to be written about, Doreen thinks about it in the form of answering questions of nurture. Why are we the way we are. Identity questions, social questions. It is not approached from a topical view, rather from of a place of trying to understand society.
“We talk about things the same way. Same topic said the exact same way…and I’ve gotten bored”. Kisaka says this while adding that she feels that the community of African writers/playwrights isn’t getting enough exposure which is why she appreciates things like Kampala International Theatre Festival.
Kemi talks about the need to “change the narrative of the things we’re talking about not so much the things we’re talking about.” She, like Kisaka, feels that the story is being told the same and that if “we don’t tell the whole story, then there’s an agenda” alluding to how for example Africa is fetishised in American Theatre.
Antu Yacob is an advocate of telling the three dimensional story. Of walking a mile in another’s shoes. She believes that people’s convictions and beliefs play out differently and writers should be able to tell the full story. Just as there African women, there are Ethiopian women, and Oromo women who all respond to life differently. Doreen contributes to this by saying that the writer needs to “imagine the other and humanise them”.
“Theatre is one of the few spaces where you hold the mirror up to society and show us what it is we are”, Antu adds. She believes theatre can be a space for social change, a place where you can approach hard topics either directly or subliminally but being able to open up people to new thought.
Rewriting and Edits
Kemi and Antu both use the “Vomit” technique. Where the original draft has everything you want to say about the subject and then subsequent edits form the final work.
Achiro has learnt to detach herself from her work. She’s learning to be brave, to open up to people because at the end of the day she wants to produce something good. So she’s learning to trust the process even though she hates the editing.
Kemi has been told to remove her favourite line from her work because this buffs up her entire work, something Doreen refers to as “Murder your darlings”. While she acknowledges this, she urges that one must trust their instincts and know when to say yes or no.