What you need to know:
- Before the colonialists, theatre existed in form of epic performances, although the Euro-centric view took it that theatre never existed in Uganda.
On the eve of Independence in 1962, the British colonial administrator at the National Theatre dismissed the director.
He was accused of trying to Africanise the National Theatre.
As Ugandans excitedly looked forward to gaining independence on October 9, 1962, the National Theatre was not left out of the flurry of activities as students from Makerere Student Dramatic Society geared up for the occasion.
But their preparation was thrown into disarray and the performance abandoned when the colonial governing body dismissed the director of the National Theatre.
So on the eve of Independence, when the National Theatre should have been very active, it went dead silent.
The National Theatre was birthed by the avalanche of plays that were emerging from the students at Makerere University.
Earlier, the Namirembe Social Centre, where the current St Paul’s Cathedral Namirembe sits, served as a performing space for the colonial administrators.
It was here that theatre performances started, but as an evangelism tool by the Church missionaries.
But the increase in the theatre activities at Makerere forced the need for more performing theatre spaces, resulting in the building of the National Theatre, which was officially opened in October 1959. There also arose the need for a law under which this could operate hence the UNCC Act of 1959, which was later amended in 1965.
Before the colonialists, theatre existed in form of epic performances, although the Euro-centric view took it that theatre never existed in Uganda.
The Western world viewed theatre as scripts, the playwright, actors and actresses, the stage, and auditorium, but the Ugandan theatre existed in form of festivals and traditional ceremonies or epic theatre.
Through traditional ceremonies and festivals, our predecessors passed on information from one generation to another hence a means to preserve, promote and popularise our culture.
Additionally, through this form of theatre, an actor would appear before the king to narrate current affairs as well as entertain him. Similarly, whenever the king wanted to communicate to his subjects, the same format was used.
Such performances would take place in open spaces in the village arenas or squares, with the epic theatre at times involving an audiences who played a vital role in chorusing, clapping, and dancing.
Nevertheless, the formal scripted theatre existed in Uganda as early as 1946, with Lacito Okech writing a play, Conversion of a heathen house into a Christian home. This performance by the students of Sir Samuel Baker School from Gulu is what announced the arrival of Okot p’Bitek to the stage.
Influence of evangelism
With the introduction of drama as a tool for education and evangelism in Church, the colonial administration adopted English as the official language and language of instruction in schools. Epic theatre thus faced erasure as English plays were introduced and performed for mainly colonial administrators and the few Ugandan elite.
As a result, Ugandan schools drama and theatre were introduced and popularised with St Paul’s Church at Namirembe starting the drama festivals in the 1940s. At St Paul’s Church, regular dramatic skits were acted after church service, aimed at reinforcing Christian’s messages. Most of the schools were funded by the same colonial organisations.
Popularising theatre in schools meant the endorsement of Western theatre among Ugandans. Secondly, it meant superimposing of Western theatre onto Ugandans. Finally, it also meant that Ugandans could no longer be mere spectators but participants as well as promoters of foreign Western culture.
Later in the early 1950s, drama shifted from schools to the nation’s highest institution of learning, Makerere University. By end of the 1950s, Makerere had become optimistic about becoming home to drama and theatre besides cementing its role as an intellectual centre in Uganda.
Later, interhall drama competitions were introduced, aimed at encouraging proficiency of English language.
The university students then went ahead to start a students’ journal, Pinpoint Journal, in which they wrote literally works that included plays. It was at this point in time that Shakespeare was introduced and Macbeth produced as a full-length play. The university students later founded Makerere Free Travelling Theatre.
The theatre soon went out of the confines of Makerere University, leading to emerging private theatre groups such as City Players, Kayayu Film Players, Kampala Shining Star Association, and Baganda Dramatic Society.
It was also at this time that the colonial administrators at the National Theatre founded a drama school at Makerere University, which aimed at absorbing those in public with interest in theatre.
After Independence, the political changes created another genre of the theatre, with practitioners seeing themselves as the gatekeepers of society and the State, especially with President Idi Amin’s ascendance to power. The Amin era was characterised by oppression and dictatorship. The playwrights then introduced new theatrical forms, which included symbolism and wordless dramas integrated with poetry, song, and dance.
This was meant to disguise their political messages. Robert Serumaga and his Abafumi Company explored this new form. He wrote and staged Majangwa and Rengamoi in 1971 and 1972, respectively. Serumaga’s ability to camouflage sensitive political issues in his themes enabled him to stage his productions without Amin’s state agents noticing, which he carried on as long as he could.
On the other hand, Byron Kawadwa’s use of history as a disguise in Oluyimba lwa wankoko was transparent, and it did not take long for the state agents to notice. His failure to camouflage his themes cost his life. Kawadwa’s death resulted in many theatre artists fleeing to exile, marking theatre regression. However, other playwrights such as John Ruganda continued to write while in exile.
The coming to power of the NRM government saw another genre and boost of theatre arising out of the abyss. Theatre was again used as an educational tool for political mobilisation and later for development as well dissemination of information and social-political education. Many NGOs and as well as the government adopted theatre in easing the implementation of their programmes.
Later on, we see theatre being used to address, create awareness and curb stigma when HIV/Aids was at its peak. Plays such as Ndiwulira by Bakayimbira, The Hydra, Gampisi, and Yellow Card, among others, took centre stage. It is also during this period that we see Alex Mukulu coming to the scene prominently with his 30 years of Bananas. Of recent, comedy has become the in thing and trendy based on improvisation.
With Covid-19 disruption of theatrical activities, we are yet to see another genre of theatre emerging. Already with the digital transition, theatre is not spared. Though with theatre, one is expected to see, feel, and experience theatre hence undergoing catharsis, which cannot be experienced digitally.
*The writer is the public relations officer of Uganda National Cultural Centre