Yesterday, the second edition of The Kampala International Theatre Festival kicked off at the National theatre. First item on the programme was a cocktail in the National Theatre foyer where we were treated to nibbly bites and some wine. It wasn’t actually on the programme, so only those in the know, or those with friends in the know, got to enjoy this session. I guess the organisers didn’t want to attract that crowd of Kampala hustlers that always somehow manage to turn up for cocktails so they can get free supper and free drinks to wash it down. I didn’t have time to ask around and investigate if this theory was the case because I was busy getting free supper and washing it down with some free white sweet wine. I should have gone easy on that free wine though because I later had to pay heavily for my sins, as you will see later.
Theatre, what’s that all about? As I was demolishing the cocktail food, I got into a discussion with a friend who works at the national theatre to get his thoughts on the nature of theatre. I expected that since he works at the theatre (as the national theatre is normally shortened to) he’d know something about all of this since the word theatre appears in the name of the place. He told me that he is not an active fan, but because he works at the place, he often finds himself in the main auditorium, staying to watch entire productions yet he had just come to take a peek and see what is going on. When I asked him why all these accidental viewings have not turned him into an active fan, he shrugged and said something to the effect of marketing that I didn’t quite grasp because I was tearing into a particularly juicy chicken thigh.
‘So what does theatre mean to you anyway?’ I asked him after I was done washing down that tender chicken thigh with some wine.
Comedy, drama, over acting and the ebonies are the key words I picked out of his reply.
‘And the kind of theatre that’s going to be at this year’s festival, what do you think of it? Are you excited to watch it?’ I questioned him further.
‘No, not really’, he replied. ‘It can be complicated. There are all these underlying messages and causes that are being pushed, and my brain can’t keep up sometimes because I’ve grown accustomed to the comedic type of theatre that is usually served around town. But I know if I enter that auditorium, I’ll probably end up watching whatever is on the stage till the end.’
‘Interesting’, I, mumbled as I started on the desert part of my festival cocktail provided supper. ‘And when you watch these productions that are not the norm, how do they make you feel?’ I was beginning to sound like a theatre therapist.
‘Well, usually for next few minutes after watching, I try to reflect on the message of the play and try and internalise what message was being communicated, if any. It’s a process I normally abandon soon after because I have to resume work or my mind gets occupied by everyday worries. And because I don’t have friends that have watched it with me, the chance to discuss the productions further rarely arises.’
‘Ah, I see where you are coming from’, I said as I nodded sagely and took notes in my therapists pad. ‘So, tell me, what was your theatre childhood like?’
Scratch that, I didn’t have a notepad and I didn’t ask that question. But I’d probably would have, seeing as I was settling into this new found role of theatre therapist, if only we hadn’t been interrupted by the bell informing us that that first production was about to kick off. I gulped down the rest of the wine, choked for a bit when some of it went down the wrong hole, and then scattered to get a seat in the auditorium. I’d have to ponder some more on the status quo of theatre in Ugandan society later.
The first play was a Senegalese production, Moi, Monsieur et Moi, which was completely in French. Great! Why did these people have to bring back bad flashbacks of all those French lessons I sat in looking bleak, and all the subsequent tests I failed with such flair. But as you can see from the title of this post, google translate came for us and I can now pretend to know written French like a boss. Thankfully, the organisers had made arrangements for people like me, and the subtitles were being projected on a curtain hanging above the stage. From the programme on the festival website, I gathered that Moi, Monsieur et Moi was, ‘The story of a little girl born in Senegal who, like many others and much like a puppet, has been given away, to an aunt, a cousin, an uncle. It is the story of girls in Africa that are mistreated and abused by their parents, guardians, teachers, and bosses. Through the eyes of a clown, the difficult story of a girl growing up into a woman is told, transcending both suffering and laughter.’
The solo actress on the stage, Patricia Gomis, played several characters, and alongside the help of various props, which included a doll, held our attention for 90 minutes straight, and was rewarded with a standing ovation for her excellent performance. There was a Q A session with Patricia after where we discovered that the play is based on her own life and she prepared pretty much most of it herself, with some help from Márcia de Castro, her stage manager. Other interesting titbits of information I managed to gather were that she is a comedian, which explained the many giggles she managed to pull out of the audience, and breasts are referred to as mangoes in Senegal.
Unfortunately, I missed some of the scenes because I had to continuously step out and clear my throat because the wine that had taken a wrong turn was still making my life miserable. Theatre crowds pay serious attention and I was getting the stink eye for repeated coughing inside the auditorium. Free things will be the death of me.
So, I hope you are convinced to attend the remaining days of KITF because there are more exciting plays like this lined up. I didn’t get the chance to chat with the festival directors, Deborah Assimwe of the Sundance institute and Faisal Kiwewa of Bayimba, to get some soundbites on what they hope to achieve with this year’s festival, but I think their goals for last year might interest you enough to hand over your money and get entertained. Here are some quotes they made last year that I got off the KITF website, ‘If there’s one goal, one theme to this festival, it is to showcase alternative formats, presentations and spaces for theatre….We hope that by staging production off ‘the proscenium arch stage’ or at different levels of readiness (such as readings), they open artists mind to new ways in which they can put their work out there anyway. Asiimwe, for instance, wonders why artists don’t stage their productions in the hotel halls that are often rented out to wedding and conferencing parties….At the same time, they hope to open up Uganda’s appetite for theatre outside of the traditional box. They are betting that perhaps when one sees a superb 20-minute production (rather than the long traditional play that even calls for an interlude), one might consider including a theatrical performance in their next private party entertainment. That way, we’ll reboot the theatrical arts scene by consuming it in new ways.’
Alrighty then, I have to run off to catch today’s productions which include, a Kenyan reading, ‘We won’t forget’, ‘Grave Robber Services’, from Uganda and a conversation with today’s artists. Instead of getting stuck in jam, why don’t you come and join in at the National Theatre. The festival goes on till Sunday so have a look at the programme here and make it a point to catch at least one of the productions. After, we can finish that discussion about the status quo of theatre in Uganda and what needs to be done to get more people to appreciate this art form.