Judith Adong: Telling the stories others fear to tell

Judith Lucy Adong is a Ugandan-born playwright and film-maker who began her career in theatre. Her inspiration is rooted in the African film, The Consequences, which she watched in 1990. She says she writes about things in her society that she questions. Courtesy photo.

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Judith Adong raises her voice whenever she feels the need to, regardless of societal sentiments on the issue at hand. For instance, although much of the country was behind the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Adong, a playwright, stood up against it, through art, of course.

Judith Lucy Adong is, in one word, outspoken. She is not one to stay silent about things that impact her. On Facebook, she will post several times a day, usually about social issues, her studies, her work and that of her friends. While carrying out research for her Master’s degree in Fine Arts (MFA) thesis, she came across something that tickled her and true to character, she decided to speak out. The result was one of the most successful plays to show recently in Uganda.

“I write about things in my society that I question,” Adong said in an email interview for this article. “But, I am always minding my own business when these societal diseases find and hit me huge that I have no cure but to write about them.”

The “societal disease” that hit her huge and resulted into Silent Voices, which showed with a full house at the National theatre in Kampala between July 21 and August 5, was the resettlement package and amnesty the government is offering to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in northern Uganda. Adong wrote Silent Voices’ first draft in 2007 after returning from her “supposed MA thesis research on the use of drama therapy for psychosocial support of former LRA child soldiers in 2006.” The thesis turned into a play script.

Adong, an Acholi herself, believes the government “is setting up Acholiland for a future disaster.” The government’s LRA resettlement and amnesty programme is a policy we have readily bought, or, one suspects, not cared much to review intently. But Silent Voices scoffs at it. While researching for the thesis, Adong found that “forgiving them (the LRA rebels) is already hard on the people,” while going “a step further to give them a resettlement package of a minimum of Shs200,000 depending on rank, and houses and cars while their victims do not even have Shs100 in a day is so wrong!” The first time I heard of Adong was while writing a story about homosexuality last year, to establish whether Uganda is as homophobic as it had been projected in a prior publication. A colleague recommended seeking Judith’s opinion since she had written a play on the challenges homosexuals in Uganda faced, and the lengths they go to in hiding their orientation. Silent Voices and Just Me, You and The Silence – the one about Uganda’s homosexuals – reveal a tendency to not only speak out, but to also tell of someone unafraid of tackling her society’s conventional norms. It takes great courage, obviously, to set yourself up against such.

However, Adong might have today been indifferent to homosexuals or, like most of us, wished fire and brimstone upon them had it not been for a stint at the Sundance Theater Lab in New York, USA.

Adong’s evolution
After writing, Silent Voices, in the process breaking a promise to work on only social scripts and shun socio-political work because she “believed politicians were irredeemable,” she was discouraged from staging it because fellow Ugandan artists told her it was too ambitious for theatre. Seeking an alternative audience, she applied for the Sundance Theater Lab, a three week program which brings together directors, actors and playwrights in a communal setting where they work on never-produced scripts. That year, the US-based lab started a project aimed at developing plays by African writers, holding a session on the island of Manda, off the coast of Kenya, which Adong attended. The experience was eye-opening. “It reincarnated me in theatre,” she says of it. The words of Philip Himberg, the artistic director of the Lab, “Here we don’t limit you; you’re limited by your own creativity,” were a particular inspiration.

In 2011, the lab invited her to New York, home to Broadway – “the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world” according to Wikipedia – where she had the opportunity to see plays on and off Broadway. Her impression was that we are “behind” in theatre. “If Ugandan artists thought my play was too ambitious for theatre, they should come see what American theatre practitioners are doing,” she thought at the time.

Another eye-opener, or “evolution”, as Barack Obama would call it, occurred at the Lab and inspired the writing of Just Me, You and The Silence. Her scriptwriting mentor was not only gay, but also “creative, intelligent and generous,” which qualities were more important than his sexual orientation. “I just thought what value these guys are to the society and David’s (Bahati) bill says to hang them?” Adong says.

She then researched more into homosexuality, finding that claims that it’s un-African are false and are instead denials by African societies that not too long ago “suppressed minorities like women.”

Not without qualms
Of course, she worries about some of the perceptions her work might give rise to. When I imply that the Silent Voices came first, she is quick to tell me that she wrote Just Me, You and The Silence first but staged the latter first, albeit abroad. Predictably, it did not go down well with the Ugandans that got to hear of it. “Some people claimed I was chasing after gay dollars,” she says. “So, in a way, I’m glad Silent Voices staged first in Uganda because it changed a number of people’s views about me, especially those who thought I was merely chasing after gay dollars with Just Me, You and The Silence.”

Horning her dream into reality
Although she “became a playwright by accident,” she now loves every moment of it. In 1990, she watched Consequences, a Zimbabwean film, and was surprised to see black actors. “Until then, I naively believed film was something for only the Whiteman,” she says. “From that point on, everything I did was towards achieving this filmmaking dream.” But Makerere’s Music Dance and Drama degree, which she had been told to read to achieve her dream, did not have a film programme and instead focused on theatre. She did not have much choice but to read that.

Later, she met the producers of Consequences, who were consultants for Rock Point 256, a radio drama she wrote for. After Rock Point, she wrote for a Kenyan series, The Agency, which taught her “so much more about screenwriting, storytelling and beating deadlines.” In 2008, she attended the Maisha Film Lab. However, she felt these experiences still left her short of the filmmaking dream she had put on hold. “I still didn’t feel as sufficient and as confident as I felt of my theatre (playwriting skills).

So, I guess I had no choice but to continue pursuing options of going to a real film school,” says Adong, which saw her applying to the Temple University’s Department of Film and Media Arts, where she currently is on a Fulbright Scholarship. Her MFA at Temple University is another testament to her grit – she decided she wanted to make films, was diverted on the way but still managed to do great stuff, and is now back on track.

Along the way, she is battling what she calls “meaningless conservatism” and energising a lethargic sector. “It is not the course that matters but what you do with the course if it’s your passion,” she says. She should know since, by all indications, it is how she lives her life.