East Africa Remakes the World; U.S. Cultural Exchanges Loom Large in That Region's Ongoing Act of Transformation

By Gener, Randy | American Theatre, November 2008 | Go to article overview

East Africa Remakes the World; U.S. Cultural Exchanges Loom Large in That Region's Ongoing Act of Transformation


Gener, Randy, American Theatre


THE CONVERSATION ABOUT EAST AFRICAN THEATRE HAS SWERVED TO A HALT.

A few moments ago, Okello Kelo Sam, the Ugandan actor, dancer and musician, spoke of his sanctuary in northern Uganda where escaped child soldiers are rebuilding their lives by means of education and job training. Hope Azeda, the Rwandan playwright and director, remembered the tears and trauma of nearly 100 performers whom she rehearsed and choreographed in a stadium for a site-specific piece commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. These stories, though potent and tough, testify to how East African artists are stepping up to become involved in Africa's remaking.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

And then it comes: one of those road-kill questions guaranteed to slam on the brakes. Prefacing his query with references to the Holocaust and the atrocities of Idi Amin, an older Jewish gentleman asks Sam, "What do you think people of the future are going to say about us today? And what about all these wars and all this violence--what can we learn from this?"

"The people of the future?" Sam blurts out, after a startled pause. "Wow."

The air inside the intimate space of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at the City University of New York turns dead and parched. It is one of those earnest-but-totally-impossible questions, a throw-your-hands-in-the air expression of universalized dismay about the enormity of the Africa problem, an inquiry that might stump the Oracle of Delphi.

"I think we should not consider, at the moment, what the future will say about us." Sam ventures in an unperturbed voice. "We should create what they should say about us. What they will say about us will be the outcome of what they see of us--so what are we, the people, doing right now? Because there is a possibility that the future may not get the opportunity to see us."

The moderator prods the other panelists to chime in. "There is no answer," says Azeda, who is sitting beside Sam, her luxurious hair wrapped in a black headscarf. "How do you explain the abduction of a three-year-old African boy? There is no answer to that."

Robert Ajwang, the effervescent Tanzanian musician who had accompanied Sam's sharply ironical performance of their collaboratively written play (co-authored with Dartmouth College theatre professor Laura Edmondson). Forged in Fire, picks up the baton. "Talking about the future is like rushing to where we should go," says Ajwang. "This play is a history of its own, not the kind written by historians. It is a real-life history from which you can take just one line and write a dissertation about it. So, to me, rushing to the future is like tearing apart the brilliant piece of history that is there--already I see you putting it into a box where it will be a historical document. But this play is about life."

Given the United States's lack of strategic interest in East Africa--a post-cold war reality in which the usefulness of that developing region has dwindled and many of the East African countries are referred to as "failed states" or "junk nations"--it is sad but perhaps to be expected that the positive developments in that region, as well as theatre-based efforts by East Africans to remake their world, have yet to seize our full attention. "Eti! East Africa Speaks"--a three-and-a-half-week residency and cultural exchange in which 11 East African playwrights, directors, performers and musicians traveled this past July first to Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and then to New York City--sought to demonstrate that Africa is a continent of renewed artistic creativity. It brought the message to Americans that the situation in Africa is not hopeless, and that the developmental theatre efforts of the past 10 years to support new East African voices have been much-needed, fruitful, hard-won and not wasted.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Just as Okello Kelo Sam embodies African cultural resilience in Forged in Fire, so do the playwrights Deborah Asiimwe (Uganda), Mumbi Kaigwa (Kenya), Charles Mulekwa (Uganda) and George Bwanika Seremba (Uganda); the poet Mrisho Mpoto (Tanzania); the musician Andrea Kalima Zawose (Tanzania); and the playwright Mgunga Mwa Mnyenyelwa and performer Eva David Nyambe, both key members of Parapanda Theatre Lab of Tanzania. …

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East Africa Remakes the World; U.S. Cultural Exchanges Loom Large in That Region's Ongoing Act of Transformation
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