Magazine article American Theatre

'The Earth Is My Drum'

Magazine article American Theatre

'The Earth Is My Drum'

Article excerpt

THE GRANDMOTHERS IN THIS photograph have seen their children killed, their grandchildren abducted and transformed into killers, and their lives shredded during 20 years of war in northern Uganda. Too impoverished to afford a drum, one grandmother plays the earth as they dance and sing a journey through suffering, leaping for joy at homecoming.


In summer 2011, about 2,000 Acholi and Langi people gathered in a field in Lira Province to reframe their lives and reclaim their land. Some walked 20 kilometers in the August heat; all celebrated as 24 community groups performed. A team of international artists and scholars, led by U.S. playwright Erik Ehn, were there too, to witness how people use art to respond to unspeakable trauma.

This field had been a headquarters of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, assembled, he claimed, to establish "a world subject to the Ten Commandments." Kony built the LRA by abducting tens of thousands of children; these children were tortured, raped, coerced to take up arms and forced to kill. Before Kony's 2008 retreat, this site held the LRA arms cache; today the refugee centers are dismantled and survivors are rebuilding home.

Against all odds, A River Blue (, a community-run, hope-filled rehabilitation program launched in 2006 for the region's damaged youth, set out to build a sorely needed vocational secondary school on this same site. First, evil had to be expiated: Okweny George Ongom, project coordinator for A River Blue, declared an arts festival as a path toward wholeness.

"Thirty years ago, these festivals happened almost weekly," said Ongom. 'There were occasional performances in the refugee camps, but this is the first substantial festival in more than two decades." He explained that Ikole (featuring drums), Okeme (thumb piano) and Otule (flute) are traditional story forms, but a vital element of the tradition is to address current issues with music, rousing energy, broad humor and occasional arch satire. …

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