An American Black Man in Uganda
The journey started at JFK and went to Dubai, where we had to speed walk from one end of the largest airport terminal in the world to the other to just barely make our connection, then on to Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, where we arrived exhausted after 20 hours of travel but excited to finally be at our destination. We then jammed all 8 of us and our luggage into an SUV with no air conditioning and began what should have been a 1 hour drive to Kampala but ended up taking 3 hours with traffic and the time spent on the side of the road when we got pulled over and received a ticket for having too many people in the car.
We finally arrived at the gorgeous Ndere Cultural Center in Kampala and were checked in by the amazing staff. Our living space was modest and efficient. Everywhere you look, there was nature. Insects, animals, plant life - whereas our solution in the urban areas here is to kill these things off, everything there is designed to co-exist with nature. I realize that Africa is becoming more modernized every day, but this was a difference that struck me.
The very next morning after our arrival, we had to run a tech rehearsal in the theater space. This was no small feat considering we had only done one complete run through of the show in the States before our departure, we had never even seen the Ndere theater space before, we had various set pieces that were constructed for us at Ndere that we were using for the first time, and the stage manager was running the sound cues for the first time. No problem! That was also the first day of the festival, so there were opening ceremonies and performances in the evening. Over the course of the week I got to see some outstanding and thought provoking theatre, including The Audience Must Say Amen by Peter Kagayi, Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana, Allos: The Story of Carlos Bulosan by Giovanni Ortega, and The Surrogate by Achiro Patricia Olwoch. To be able to experience these works and then have the opportunity to meet and talk with the artists was absolutely amazing. Our two performances took place at the end of the week and they were received enthusiastically by the audience, which was comprised mostly of Ugandans but included people from all over the world. Mourning Sun is about Ethiopians and in the first act, which takes place in Ethiopia, we are either speaking Ethiopian dialects or English with an Ethiopian accent. Coming in, we were very curious to see how this aspect of the play would be received by an African audience. As it turns out they were fairly blown away by our performance. In fact during the post show talkback, the moderator thought I was actually Ethiopian - she literally had to change her question after I told her I was American. Our last performance was actually the festival finale, and thanks to a weather-related scheduling logjam we had to compete with an incredibly loud African drumming ensemble that was performing right outside the theater during the second act. To our credit we stuck with it and received a standing ovation. I have to give thanks and praise to the rest of the cast and crew - Antu Yacob, Temesgen Tocruray, Jevonnah Mayo, John P. Keller, Fadoua Hanine, Adrian Baidoo, Joshua Alafia and Ari Laura Kreith for their dedication, hard work and skill. It was truly an honor to work with this group.
Now that it's over, I'm left to reflect on what my time in Uganda meant to me. It's really tough to nail it down to one thing. My perspective was changed and my eyes were opened in so many ways, both as a person and as an artist. I guess the most relevant thing for me, in light of the ongoing situation here in America, is the idea of what it means to be a black. If you are an American of African descent, you are always, on some level of consciousness, aware that you are black. And this blackness means you are Other, and Other is Less Than. This permeates every aspect of your existence. We spend most of our time in environments where we are the minority, and have to prove to people that we are good in spite of our blackness. Even when we are within the "black community," we feel like we have to live up to some perceived idea of blackness that has been thrust upon us.
What I experienced in Uganda was a complete lifting of the weight of this judgement. When you're walking around and LITERALLY EVERYONE is black, then you don't feel like a black person - you're just another person. This was so liberating. I realize there are plenty of problems in Africa and there is discrimination everywhere, but I'm just giving you my personal impression as an African American visiting Africa for the first time.
Artistically, it was inspiring to hear African artists talk about their desire to take control over their own stories. For so long the Western narrative regarding Africa has been war, slavery, rape. Repeat. Everyone is poor, miserable and has HIV. There is so much more to Africa. So much beauty, joy, and brilliance. These stories need to be told, and they need to be told by Africans. Seeing the hunger that these artists have to tell their own stories has inspired me greatly.
I had an incredible experience in Kampala and I can't wait to go back! I want to thank the staff of the Ndere Cultural Center and the Kampala International Theatre Festival, especially Asiimwe Deborah Kawe and Achiro Patricia Olwoch.