Out of East Africa: The Show Must Go on for Uganda Orphans and Batwa Pygmies, in the Wake of Cross-Border Violence, Civil Wars, Disease and Devastation

Article excerpt

How far will you go to find a play? I found my answer last summer when on a whim I purchased a plane ticket to Uganda in hot pursuit of an idea. Director Kate Whoriskey and I had long bandied about the notion of creating a theatre piece centered around the lives of women and girls caught in the middle of the devastating armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was all wonderfully abstract, until I convinced Kate that the only way to understand the physical, social and psychological consequences of war on women in Africa was to hear the firsthand accounts of those directly affected by conflict.

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Kate was deep in the process of directing my play Fabulation at New York's Playwrights Horizons when I surprised her with the news that I had bought a plane ticket online. We had discussed going to Africa for months, but I knew that if we didn't act immediately our window of opportunity would close and our dream would never come to fruition. I suggested Uganda, "the pearl of Africa," for its proximity to DRC and Sudan. In addition, its relative stability made it an attractive destination for refugees from throughout the Great Lakes region of Africa. Uganda is a safe haven to one of the largest refugee populations on the continent; it currently hosts hundreds of thousands of nationals from the neighboring states of Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya, Somalia, Burundi and Ethiopia.

Forty-eight hours later, Kate too had bought a ticket to Uganda. The day after Fabulation opened we boarded a plane to Africa, the motherland. And as we flew across the Atlantic with no clear-cut itinerary, I wondered about what sort of theatre we'd encounter in a region of the world under siege by war, poverty and AIDS.

WHERE TO GO NEXT?

FIVE INOCULATIONS LATER, ARMED WITH ANTIMALARIAL prophylaxis and the Lonely Planet guide to East Africa, Kate, my husband, Tony Gerber, and I arrive in Uganda. We deplane with a bevy of overfed Midwestern missionaries wearing T-shirts with slogans like "I'm on Christ's team" and at least one aging cowboy journalist who is heading to the northern Ugandan conflict zone to write an article for Vanity Fair.

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Upon our arrival in the capital city of Kampala, a traffic-choked city of leafy hills, I immediately hit the coin-devouring payphone in the lobby of the unfortunately named Tourist Hotel. I spend more than an hour running through a lengthy list of research contacts provided by friends from U.S.-based human rights organizations. I reach no one. Apparently everyone is either on vacation until the following week or at a conference in Kenya. We don't panic. We decide to experience Uganda and reconnect with our contacts in a week. This is a blessing in disguise, as it will allow us the opportunity to see theatre in Kampala and explore the countryside. But we soon discover that there isn't anything playing at the National Theatre of Uganda until next week. We've arrived a week too soon for everything.

We are thrilled when Deborah Asiimwe, a Ugandan theatre artist I met at the Sundance Theatre Lab, invites us to attend an evening of sketch comedy organized by a group of artists called the Theatre Factory. The performance space is nestled in the back of a crowded nightclub, and the room is filled to the brim with trendy Kampalans. The humorous sketches lampoon rigid social and cultural mores and are performed in a mixture of Luganda and English. The talented cast keeps the evening flowing, and the laughs come quick and easy. Deborah explains that the Theatre Factory is popular because young people sense that they are part of new form of cultural expression taking root in Kampala. It is the first of several theatrical events that we'll see in nontraditional venues in Uganda.

ON THE ROAD

WE LEAVE KAMPALA AT DAWN, TRAVELING AT A NASCAR pace. Our driver, Kayondo Wahabu, uses his horn promiscuously, with little regard for pedestrians. …