Sunday December 27 2015

Drama takes centre stage as art finds place in the liberation struggles

A scene from the play, State of the Nation, a Bakayimbira

A scene from the play, State of the Nation, a Bakayimbira Dramactors and Afri-Talents political production. The play, which had been suspended by the government before being allowed to be staged in 2012, speaks sardonically dramatising what has become of the country from Independence to the Jubilee celebrations. FILE PHOTO 

By Frank Walusimbi

Music is not the only component of arts that was introduced to Uganda politics. Theatre dramas too became vital in highlighting political shortcomings.

Such drama that talked politics started in schools and were later introduced on stage.

As musicians attempted to test the deep waters of Uganda’s tense political times, playwrights remained undecided.
During former president Idi Amin’s regime, the arts, especially sports and music, thrived but musicians trod carefully.
In fact, Amin had his favourite musicians. Among them was the Africa Go Forward Band, now Afrigo Band.

The Suicide Regiment Band was another of Amin’s favourites. Composed of mostly shabby and shy singers and instrument players, as seen in past videos, the artistes would pluck notes off their instruments in praise of the self-imposed life president.

Worthy of note is that many songs in praise of Amin did not go on record.

How the dramas started
When drama started picking up steam, they were much of a school phenomena. Students would act dramas lifted from works of literature.

Wycliffe Kiyingi would later popularise theatre drama in the early 1960s when he formed a theatre group that comprised locals. Kiyingi’s group, The African Artistes Association, traversed the country acting plays in local language.

Byron Kawadwa of Kampala City Players and Robert Serumaga and his Abafumi Theatre Company, are also celebrated playwrights and directors of the late 1960s and 70s.

Kawadwa had in 1969 accomplished his Amakula ga Kulabako production. The musical drama was successful. With themes of romance, leadership and betrayal, the drama became topical.
Kawadwa gave roles to famous figures in the music industry to further appeal to the public to watch his plays.

In Amakula ga Kulabako, famous musician Eclas Kawalya took up the role of Nyonyintono, the main character.

Wassaanyi Sserukenya wrote music in Kawadwa’s drama, including music in the controversial Oluyimba lwa Wankoko, a 1969 production.

The play begins with a very energetic villager... he was praised all the time. People used to call him ‘our man’.
The villager in Sserukenya’s description is Wankoko, a man that had no significant stature in society except his unbecoming pride and a dangerous seed of betrayal in him.

Sserukenya sings a part of the chorus that became an identifier of the play.

“Wankoko, erinnya lyange nze Wankoko, muyimbe nti nno Wankoko... then all of them [actors] would sing the chorus in unison.”

Another scene in this play featured a musical, again by Sserukenya, called Omuntu Muntu, to mean a human being is simply human.

Talking about that scene, Sserukenya says, “Many people interpreted that part in the play as political. The song sends a message... humans should not be mistreated.”

It is not known how or who interpreted the play to authorities. In his or her version of the synopsis they must have concluded that it was attacking Amin’s political methods.

In the play, Wankoko, the main character and a man from a remote village, without stature, wanted to manipulate the king and everybody else in the palace so he could rule the kingdom.

This innocent theme of betrayal depicted by Kawadwa in his script and Sserukenya in the music could possibly have been attached to wrong allegory and thus interpretation.
In 1977, Kawadwa was murdered on return from the Black Arts Festival in Nigeria where the play was staged for its last time.

His death also marked the end of Kampala City Players, a group that had delivered powerful works.

Some people up to now doubt the connection between Kawadwa’s murder and Oluyimba lwa Wankoko.

First, as Sserukenya says, the play was there before Amin came to power. Secondly, government officials, including those close to Amin, sanctioned the play to be staged in Uganda and Nigeria. And lastly, not a single line was changed in the script and music when the play was staged in Nigeria in 1977.

If indeed Kawadwa’s death was connected to his drama, then that was a major assault on the arts that went on record.

Robert Serumaga, who died in Nairobi in 1980 under unclear circumstances, is a notable playwright, actor and director.

One of the National Theatre founders in 1959, Serumaga is remembered for drama that touched the socio-political theme. Amayirikiti is one of them. The 1974 drama was watched by Idi Amin himself. Majangwa and The Elephants are some of his other plays.

Serumaga was an arts person who would later detest Amin’s political methods. He went into exile and later, in 1979, worked with allies who overthrew Amin.

The most intimated story of Serumaga’s death is more related to politics than drama.

Veteran actor Omugave Ndugwa of the Black Pearls remembers Serumaga’s powerful socio-political drama Amayirikiti.
“It was staged at the Kampala Conference Centre during the OAU Summit, but I don’t think it caused him any problem although there was rumour that it was one of the plays that caused him death,” he says.

The drama prodigies
The late 1970s were curtain times for playwrights and actors like Alex Mukulu.

Mukulu has since written 30 plays, including Wounds of Africa, Excuse me Muzungu, The Guest of Honour and the 1991 famous 30 Years of Bananas which depicted 30 years of political turmoil in Uganda.

Mukulu broke the monotony of the romantic theme. Kibuuka Byansansa and Kateete Omumbaale of Kampala Dramatic Society followed in Mukulu’s steps.

Kateete dared authorities in 1980 with a hard hitting play Kateete Omupembe which later invited him death threats and subsequently exile.

“Love, comedy... those were the themes, nothing serious! You could not risk!” Benon Kibuuka of the Bakayimbira Dramactors said of the past decades.

Playwrights and actors did not get deterred by the deadly political fangs that could strike anyone at any time.

In 1982, when Milton Obote had just returned to power, Kyambogo College lecturer Cliff Lubwa p’Chong dared government with a play The Minister’s Wife.

Benon Kibuuka, then a young actor, was part of the cast.
“I don’t remember anyone who came out with a play that attacked government like he did. In fact, back at Kyambogo we were welcomed like heroes after acting the play at the National Theatre,” Kibuuka says.

In the play, Adnagu, the minister’s wife, tries to compel him to quit politics, saying it had turned “dirty” and risky.

The minister, however, did not heed to his wife’s warning. He was murdered by his political enemies. The name Adnagu was anagram for Uganda.

Those were the nascent days of Jimmy Katumba and the Ebonies. Their musical dramas like Days of Gun Rule and Bring Back my Freedom were doing well at the box office.

The NRM days
Lately, theatre enjoys a degree of freedom. Instances have happened though, like in 2012 when government almost banned State of the Nation, a play by Afri-talent and Bakayimbira Dramactors.

The play was staged at the National Theatre but before taking it to Bat Valley Theatre, Uganda Media Council suspended it and demanded to preview the script. After a while, the play was cleared for staging.

State of the Nation was inspired by the President’s annual address on the state of the country. The drama introduced strong political undertones that invited government interest.
In 2011, Bakayimbira had a situation when government demanded to preview their play Majambere.

The two incidents are an indication that censorship still accompanies theatre freedom.

Playwrights like Kato Lubwama have staged political plays like the 2007 Gawandagala which he did with Ashraf Ssemogerere and Masikiini ku Lujjuliro, a 2012 production.

“My plays have always been about a cause. I want people to develop an analytical mind. They should critique things going on around them,” says Lubwama who is seeking a Parliament seat for Rubaga South in Kampala.

Lubwama is acting on a political scene he has critiqued for long, but he says it is not his drama background that influenced this. His political mind dates far back than his drama career, he says.

Tomorrow we will look at how music became a part of political parties and whether the current trend of musicians working for politicians is a healthy trend for the industry.

Kiyingi, first author to stage play at theatre

Wycliffe Kiyingi was a Ugandan playwright, whose plays influenced the free travelling theatre at Makerere University in the mid 1960s. Kiyingi was the first Ugandan to stage a play at the National Theatre in 1953, with his play Pio Mbereenge Kamulaali.

The play was the first in a local language to be staged at the National Theatre. Kiyingi formed the country’s first theatre group to comprise native Ugandans; the African Artistes Association.

The group adopted the mode of a travelling theatre, taking its productions to different parts of the central region. It is from there that other theatre groups (such as the Makerere Free Travelling Theatre of the 1960s) got inspiration, leading to the development of a fully-fledged local theatre movement in the country.

Kiyingi was also the pioneer native writer of radio and TV drama in Uganda, in the late 1950s.

He wrote more than ten books. Some of his great plays include; Gwosussa Emmwanyi, Lozio Bba Ssesiriya, Olugendo lw’e Gologoosa, Muduuma Kwe Kwaffe, Ssempala bba mukyala Ssempala and the radio play Wókulira .

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