Deborah Asiimve – Reflections on East African Theatre


Deborah Asiimwe. Photo: Philippa Ndisi-Hermann

The obstacles and  potential for a stronger collaboration between artists in East Africa is a recurring theme that we are exploring on Addis Rumble. We have previously illuminated this issue through interviews with musicians, photographers, visual artists etc. from the region. Now the time has come to investigate the East African theatre scene, and to help us in this endeavor, we asked one of Africa’s most talented theatre practitioners and playwrights, the Ugandan-born Deborah Asiimwe, to help us out.

Deborah’s script Will Smith Look Alike won the 2010 BBC African Performance Playwriting competition and she is a recipient of the 2010 Theatre Communications Group (TCG) New Generation Future Leaders grant. Deborah’s recent plays include Forgotten WorldCooking OilAppointment with gOD and Un-entitled which have all been received either as productions or stage readings in the US and some in East Africa. She is currently working as a specialist for Sundance Institute East Africa supporting the work of theatre artists in East Africa by creating exchange and exposure opportunities between U.S. artists and East African writers, directors, and performers. We asked her to compare the theatre scenes in East Africa, to highlight some innovative trends in East African theatre and to tell us what is needed in order to create more and stronger linkages between theatre practitioners across the region.


The Sundance Institute East Africa is now in it’s 11th year. What do you see as the key achievements made through the initiative in the past decade?

East African artists have been given an opportunity to be in the same space together, to create together, and imagine the future of their work not only in their home countries, but also regionally, and globally. Many of the artists we have worked with had never had an opportunity to do artistic collaborations with their East African counterparts, and we have seen collaborations emerge. Sundance Institute East Africa does not present or produce work, it only focuses on creating space for artists to development their work. This is a rare “gift” in East Africa where artists are for the most part under pressure to have their work produced without really committing enough time to its development. Most of the artists we have worked with have seen the value of spending time developing work. Time spent in work development gives permission to the artists to allow themselves to try many different things, imagine their work in different new ways, and to ask themselves hard questions about their work.

In my view, all of this has made East African theatre makers produce better work. In addition, there is something about artists feeling that they are safe and free to create. In most cases we take artists far away from East African cities which are characterized by hustle and bustle, we take them away from their families or anything else that might otherwise put them under pressure or take away their fully attention, to a quiet environment, we provide them with room and board, offer them a modest stipend, and that gives them an opportunity to fully focus on their work.


Feature about Deborah’s Cooking Oil play


“Innovation and Hybridity in African and International Performance” was the theme for the major theatre conference taking place in Uganda last year that you co-organized. In your view, where does the innovation in East African theatre come from these years?

I think artists’ work everywhere is informed by what is around them, what they experience directly or indirectly. Like elsewhere, East African theatre artists are experimenting with including other art genres in their theatre work. For example, I have noticed that some productions employ the use of video projections, or other visuals. Some are breaking rules with language for all sorts of reasons, whether it is because they are interested in capturing the way the people they are writing about talk, or are including poetry and hip hop in their theatre writing and so on. Other artists nowadays heavily draw from their indigenous performing techniques, by including music, song, movement, and oral literature.

Many theatre artists in East Africa are slowly moving away from conventional theatre performances and practices. In some cases, theatre artists are exploring with site specific performances taking their work to streets or bars or warehouses or houses or available open spaces. I have met artists opting for the use of unconventional physical materials that are available and affordable. For example, using flashlights instead of the usual theatre lighting equipment, or in order to produce a gunshot sound, you have someone hitting a drum to produce a similar effect.


What do you see as the main differences between the theatre scenes in East Africa, e.g. between Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia?

The theatre I have experienced in all these countries is urban-based theatre, and I know that in rural areas there are all sorts of theatre practices that could take a lifetime studying and understanding. With the exception of Uganda, I have not traveled extensively outside of the main capital cities of the East African countries we work with. To a greater extent, my view focuses on the urban theatre practices. I was in Addis Ababa in 2012, and one thing that I will never forget about my experience there, is how theatre is so engrained in people’s culture. I have never gotten over the fact that every single theatre house we went to, to see a play had endless queues of people going to see theatre regardless of what day of the week was. I was told that it is only Mondays that most theatre houses are closed. I had never seen so many people going to see theatre in Kampala or Nairobi.

I recently returned from Bujumbura, and I felt the images of queues in front of theatre houses in Addis were being replayed in Bujumbura. There is so much respect for theatre in Bujumbura! It was very impressive. In Kampala, theatre houses are usually busy over the weekend. It very rare for example to come across any theatre activity like on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and I think that is one the things that makes Kampala’s theatre scene different from Nairobi, Addis, Kigali or Bujumbura. Also, in Addis, I noticed that most of the theatre there is pageantry like, something that is quite different from the other East African countries. Still in Addis Ababa, much as there is new work being written and created, I have also come across quite a number of translated and or adapted works from the Greek classics or works by Shakespeare and other European classic theatre writing. Where as some of these classic writings are respected and performed, not many have been adapted in say Uganda or Kenya.


Sundance Institute East Africa Theatre Lab 2012

Sundance Institute East Africa Theatre Lab 2013

What is needed in order to create more linkages between the various theatre environments in the East Africa region?

I think there is a big need for spaces that are dedicated to developing new work. We have theatre spaces in the region, but there is little dedication to offering time and space to development. Please note that there is a difference between development and rehearsal. Developing work is that “space” between an idea and rehearsals for a production. Theatre spaces in East Africa just like any commercial theatres elsewhere, are interested in receiving a finished product. In addition to spaces dedicated to developing work, those spaces need to take interest in bringing artists of different cultural backgrounds together. East Africa is slowly integrating, and besides political and economic integration, there is need to understand one another’s arts and unique culture. Theatre festivals in East Africa also need to be more inclusive of East African theatre work.


Tell us about the Flash Project – why the invisible performance approach?

Flash Theatre is a project that has been developed by a lawyer-writer (Brian Bwesigye, ed.) that I have been mentoring for sometime. It came out of an experience he had in Kampala about his ethnicity. Ethnicity and many other things are some of the things that Ugandans avoid talking about, and yet there is deep-seated prejudice between different ethnicities. We are experimenting with invisible theatre, where professional actors and actresses perform rehearsed but improvised scripts in public places, involving passers-by who are unaware that they are part of a performance. Afterwards, participants and bystanders are engaged in a discussion about stereotypes, prejudices or any other topics that are considered sensitive or taboo exposed by the performance.


Do you see a specific potential for public space performances in East Africa due to the limited established performance spaces?

It is true that we have limited established performance spaces in East Africa, and I think that we as artists should think creatively and use that lack to our advantage. For example, we need to look elsewhere for alternative performance spaces, and public spaces can serve as such.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.