We offer our workshop showing of Alebtong. [Working Title.] this evening at 6PM local time at Kampala’s Uganda National Cultural Centre… What this team has built these three weeks is truly fine, fun and deep. It celebrates what the Lango have to teach us about story, art and survival. But this performance was not the point. This Intensive is about building capacity: working with leading Ugandan artists to explore what happens when we experience true listening exchange, when we apply our theatre art toward civic empathy. We are using art to build peace. Jo Carson once told me, “A community has to be pretty desperate to think a play will solve its problems.” Ah, yes, but it is a place to start. I pray these terrific Ugandan artists will claim these skills as their own, and tell the stories that need telling to mend our broken world. And so our LANGI VOICES team gives you a story play: nine stories, four songs, four dances, and a couple of Lango children’s games. Alebtong. [Working Title.] Thanks for listening.
– From my Facebook post, October 23, 2015
This event was either the culmination of a long, complex journey, or merely the next step. We’ll see.
I’d come to Uganda at the invitation of Lango community leader Okweny George Ongom (George for short) and Kampala-based producer Alberto Mubiru. The three of us had met four years prior, when I visited east Africa as part of a team traveling with playwright Erik Ehn, investigating the place of art in post-genocide Rwanda and post-conflict northern Uganda.
Alberto handled logistics for that 2011 journey. George is the Executive Director of A RIVER BLUE, a comprehensive community development agency in Alebtong District in northern Uganda. ARB places the arts as essentially co-equal with water projects, nutrition, healthcare, and vocational education in the quest for societal healing. Northern Uganda needs societal healing.
The United Nations estimates 66,000 children were abducted during 20 years of war in northern Uganda. The victims were mostly Acholi and Lango. Joseph Kony’s infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) murdered many, transforming the rest into child soldiers, sex slaves, or laborers in pursuit of his goal of purportedly making the world comply with the Ten Commandments. Remaining families sought protection in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camps, where cultural knowledge faded: families dependent for decades on food distributed from aid trucks, forgot how to farm. The entire society was stressed to breaking.
The LRA War ended here around 2008, leaving shattered social structures. How to reintegrate the formerly abducted? Now young adults, they had escaped the LRA and come home, but had wielded automatic weapons against their own people. “Soldier-wives” brought with them children fathered by their hated captors. No family was unaffected. What tools did George’s ARB initiative use first to mend this torn society? Art! Story! Dance! Song! Poetry! Performance! Yes, fellow artists: Art is Essential in Healing. A RIVER BLUE began the rebuilding and reintegration process through applied art.
At the 2011 gathering, Alberto Mubiru listened to Lango testimonies and was deeply moved. He considered himself well-informed, yet these personal stories came to him as revelation. One night, around a campfire, Alberto made a tearful apology and a personal promise: He would seek ways to share these stories with other Ugandans, across considerable linguistic, cultural, and political barriers. Conversations between Alberto and George led to my 2015 invitation.
In rural Appalachia, the Deep South, and Pennsylvania, I’ve worked with distressed off-the-radar communities to make original story-plays that celebrate, challenge, pulse with energy, address intractable issues, and inspire positive change. I call this toolkit Story Work. But no project was more daunting than this venture in Uganda.
George and Albert wanted to bring Story Work to Uganda, to build capacity in Ugandan artists. A TCG Global Connections “In the Lab” Grant, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a Network of Ensemble Theaters NET/TEN Travel Grant, as well as individual gifts, made Langi Voices possible.
Co-producer Mubiru engaged our Kampala-based actors, all highly regarded artists in TV, film and theatre: two women, Allen Kagusuru and Esther Tebandeke, and one man, Muwangala Tonny. I’d met all three in Rwanda in 2011; they’ve since performed in productions in Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York. Tonny took time away from producing news at NTV, Uganda’s national television. Esther had just completed filming for Disney, working with Lupita Nyang’o and David Oyelowo on QUEEN OF KATWE, a 2016 release.
Co-producer Ongom assembled thirty Langi willing to share their stories, and brought two virtuoso composer/musicians to the project: Onyung James (on Bule, or “Langi Talking Drum”) and Okut Tony (on Okeme, or “Thumb Piano”). Production Assistant Jashon Tusingwire completed a fun, dedicated, hard-working, and indomitable team. Good thing, as this three-week intensive was certainly intense: the journeys exhausting, the work physically and emotionally draining.
First came a workshop on the fundamentals of Story Work at the Uganda National Cultural Centre in Kampala. Then, north to Aloi, where the actors facilitated the community Story Circles, and the Langi musicians joined the team. We exchanged games, songs and meals with the Langi; we listened, learned, and held on in astonishment as stories unfolded with disarming frankness and courageous honesty. The horrific was ever present, but so were stories of humor, joy, grace, and forgiveness.
In Lira, our team went into rehearsal, devising our play in the courtyard of a hotel that before the war had been quite elegant, and now, between power failures and undependable water service, was striving with great resourcefulness and some success to re-establish itself. We learned more each minute applying Story Work’s essential values: Agency, Authenticity, Artistry, Accuracy, and Audacity. Several of the hotel staff pitched in, helping us learn traditional songs and dances.
Finally, back at Kampala’s Uganda National Cultural Centre, the performance of ALEBTONG [WORKING TITLE.] in both Luo and English was enthusiastically received, exceeding expectations. Story carries real power.
Still, the show isn’t the point: this intensive was intended more as a provocation, an offer of concrete tools that must now draw on the abundant skills of Ugandans. There are dreams of the future, new passions, and eager invitations. We’ll see.
Freelance director, playwright, writer, actor, teacher, activist, instigator and USA Fellow, Gerard Stropnicky co-founded the Network of Ensemble Theaters, as well as Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble (PA), where he is member emeritus. He is based in rural Danville PA.