The marvel of pre-independent Uganda is having a National Cultural Centre charged with, among other things, encouraging the growth of indigenous drama in Uganda and developing cultural and artistic activities.
The irony of its Director, Peter Carpenter being dismissed for “Africanising” the theatre. The Social Welfare Department creating the character for the first radio drama serial, Kapere (voiced by James Mpagi), as a forum theatre platform. A radio serial, Wokulira (By the Time You Grow Up), prophesying a premier exiling a king and banned after its pilot episode.
A church so bent on exploiting drama to spread Englishness and beat back the advance of Swahili and Islam that it required English teachers in its schools to double as drama-club coaches and the resultant struggle to define a “Ugandan theatre in English” to replace the English plays.
The milestones of Uganda’s theatre industry between 1930 when the first scripted drama was written and performed in Uganda, and 1980 when the end of its ‘golden age’ set in would make for a nice thriller movie. In comparison, the years that followed seem like a sequel not quite in the same class.
But the math would suggest otherwise. By 1980, 130 groups had registered with Uganda Theatre Groups Association (UTGA), reaching 400 by1 993. Currently, there are 2,000 groups under the Uganda Development Theatre Association (UDTA). But, artistes maintain this is all quantity and fragmentation, not quality.
Writing in the programme for the 21-day long Theatre Maturity Celebrations (THEMAC) in 1980, Fagil Mandy who then chaired UTGA, noted that “although standards of plays and audience appreciation have improved and theatre itself has matured, groups themselves have not. Only when there is central coordination of voice, action and aspiration can we say that theatre has matured in Uganda”.
The centralised action is yet to happen. Attendance continues to split between Afri-Talent, Bakayimbira Dramactors, the Ebonies and Diamonds Ensemble, the same way it was for Kampala City Players at the time they competed for attention with groups like Kayaayu Film Players, Negro Angels and the Baganda Dramatic Society. And not all the groups have/had artistic agendas for their formative motive.
“Everyone with an empty garage they can convert for rehearsal space, a few costumes, and contacts thinks they have what it takes to start a successful theatre group. Authentic artistes are few, which is why most groups last for a year utmost before they collapse,” says Julius Lugaaya, an administrator at Theatre Factory.
The result? Lesser and lesser attendances at theatres, making it hard to replicate the smashing success Alex Mukulu had with his 16-week run of 30 Years of Bananas at the National Theatre.
The other reason for theatre’s reduced popularity is ironical as it is bittersweet.
“Those days actors and politicians almost equaled the risk of death as an occupational hazard. Theatre was valuable because of the level of finesse exhibited, but also because of the sense that the actors perhaps would be dead the following week,” said James Luboyera, a veteran theatre-goer.
Some things have changed since then. Access to theatres is granted fully, not like it was for Wycliff Kiyingi’s African Artistes Association, the first all-Ugandan group allowed inside the National Theatre for their performance of Gw’osussa Emwanyi in 1962, eight years after he formed the group and three after the theatre’s inauguration on December 2, 1959.
As Eckhard Breitinger recorded in his paper, Popular Urban Theatre In Uganda: Between Self-Help and Self-Enrichment,“This was only on Saturday afternoons when the white expatriate audience was still out at the shores of Lake Victoria in one of the clubs; and only too often their performances were cut short to make room for the Asian or white theatrical groups”
Most things, though, have changed little, if at all. Upon his return from the 1977 Festival of Black and African Art (FESTAC) in Nigeria, National Theatre director Byron Kawaddwa met his end for writing Oluyimba lwa Wankoko (Song of the Cockerel).
Hajji Ashraf Semwogerere nearly met his in November of 2006, trussed up and deposited on a train track in Kinawataka, after showing his Murder in the City at the National Theatre.
Just like Wokulira was banned in 1965, the showing of Vagina Monologues was halted by then Ethics Minister John Nsaba-Butuuro in February 2005. Solo performances like Ntare Mwine’s Biro in 2003 are as newsworthy as gomesi-clad Disan Mubiru was with his goat in the 90’s.
So, what is necessary to ensure the future “pregnant with ideas” that 1980 Director Eldad Walakira hoped for? The current Executive Director, Joseph Walugembe, asserts that “This requires us directing the definition and meaningful ranking of where theatre is on the national agenda. Briefcase practitioners, artistes moonlighting in different groups, and the syndrome of personality-based groups which never outlast their founders must all be weeded out.”
By Brian Magoba, Daily Monitor