In Uganda, Performing Arts may have walked into an open coffin (Part III)

New Political era, different Scenes (continued)

Museveni’s era ushered in a new and sophisticated audience, hence scripts became a prerequisite before anyonewould be given a booking. It was not uncommon to find a script writer in charge of everything; writer, actor in the play, director of the play, marketing manager and driver.

A clear line was drawn when it came to who got paid for what. The group would be rehearsed according to thescript, day and night. The technical aspects of production like lighting and sound were left to National Theatre technicians.

Up country groups were organized with emphasis on serious theatre. This formal rigidity wasn’t
a meal everyone could partake, so some groups left.

By the time Rwangyezi left the National in 1994, Alex Mukulu was putting on shows. The late
Elly Wamala was among the musicians performing at the Theatre.

But because there was no resident company that could maintain the standards set, katemba
returned, sophisticated people flocked to bars.

“Today, theatre is lying flat in an open coffin. All that is missing is a hammer to nail the coffin
shut.” Rwangyezi stated.

What we have today are comedies, one man shows and music stars. Artists take no
entrepreneurial risks. An entrepreneur wants to be different but no one strives for this, as a result
we have autotune and shameless plagiarism.

When Chameleon does something and it works, everyone does the same thing, when one realizes
that mediocre art sells, they can’t step back to add depth to their work.

This is why we have musicians copying and pasting art forms that were originally influenced by
the living conditions in American ghettos–artists singing in Jamaican patois––music relayed in
languages not anchored in our cultures and societies.

It was thought that the copyright law would curb plagiarism until members of the Copyright
Task Force got roughed up downtown where they had gone to arrest pirates.

A clear indication that everyone wants to get all the pennies at no cost, we don’t see society
protesting artists who steal other people’s work. No one says they won’t attend artist X’s show
because he sings artist Y’s songs because the audience consumes whatever is served.

The Baganda say, ‘One doesn’t speak in proverbs in the presence of a leper’, but more is
expected from the department of Performing Arts and Film. Where do the students from the
department go for internship? Where do they practice from? ‘People’s Theatre,’ I mentioned.

“Professor Sserwadda used to take students to Makerere University Medical school to learn the anatomy, and to the National Theatre to learn technicalities like lighting, how curtains are controlled––I have not seen a student from Makerere
University come to me with a letter seeking an internship spot, ” he said.

Makerere University under Margaret McPherson started the Uganda Traveling Theatre
comprising of students from Makerere literature department who performed literature plays in

That is how the late Professor Rose Mbowa got into theatre because she was studying
literature as a subject. Professor Rose Mbowa was an actress and loved producing plays.
Professor Sserwadda enjoyed producing artists, what are the rest doing these days?

People like Dr. Ntangaare should be mounting seasons–directing companies, not any less, acting in
productions; then at the end give out awards.

The criteria they use to pick lecturers, just like the criteria they use to admit students is wrong.
And partly that is why they are still in those rooms. Where do students rehearse from? The
department needs to step back from Stanislavski, Shakespeare and design a fitting and relevant

Rwangyezi said that while he was still a student they fought for bigger space like the school of
Education, class of 2007 tried a similar fight to no success. Leadership can’t complain because
they will be shown the exit, leaving everyone trapped in a cycle not only of complacency, in as
much of silence.

Regarding the Audience

We have an illiterate audience that makes––illiterate artists, who in the end think they are
wonderful making it hard for many to step away from the modus operandi lest they are left with
empty chairs.

Because no one is teaching literal analysis in schools, not many can see a play and
analyze it––listen to music and critique because they don’t know the elements of good music.
If we are to talk about chords, melodic variations, notes, would an audience member know?
Would they tell what is missing?

Trends and a ‘celebrity culture’ have contributed to the consumption of art or things people don’t
understand. Ugandans have a profound lack of personal pride that becomes breeding ground for

For instance, when the Congolese bands were playing in Uganda, there was a particular class of
people that attended these shows. Suddenly everyone started going because no one wanted to be
left out. Those who shy away from what is trendy are looked at in contempt and have no
alternative but join with the trend.

Certainly, on realizing that people didn’t have to understand what the Congolese bands were
singing about to enjoy their music, our local artists must have thought; ‘we can yell unintelligible
things at the audience and get away with it.’ And no doubt it works.

Rwangyezi mentioned two experiences that highlight the disadvantages of having an illiterate
audience. One involved two Ugandans he found analyzing a heap of stones they thought to be
part of an exhibition at the Nommo Gallery. The heap of stones were rubbish yet to be put away
by janitors.

The other involved a recording session he was invited to attend by Mr. Katende of the Ebonies.
“I had to listen to ten songs and give ten reasons why the songs should be produced. I listened to
six songs and they all sounded the same.

I asked Katende why the audience had to listen to six songs that sounded the same and he told me; ‘they won’t tell. And if Jimmy dances, they will go wild.’ Truth is, Jimmy bless him, couldn’t dance.” he explained.

Today we have to deal with excitable crowds that get bellyaches when someone removes their
clothes. Noteworthy is that this trend is also dying. Why?

Before a musician could singlehandedly hold a stage on merit, today adverts emphasize
‘abayimbi bonna bajja kubaayo’ (all the musicians will feature). You hear adverts proclaiming,
nga bakamala okuyugumya National Theatre, baabo bakiridde e Kayunga’ (Upon having
successful runs at the National Theatre…they are now going on a tour in Kayunga.)

This only works to mislead a peasant in the country, anyone who understands the process of
productions knows that tours are done regionally, first: a show gains momentum, everyone is
talking about it––then the climax is a national staging. Going from the National Theatre to
Kasosoko is the equivalent of an end of year clearance discount sale.

“Ugandans are wallowing in hopelessness, massive ignorance and Born Again Pastors are
capitalizing on that telling people; ‘you want a man, a VISA, a job, come Jesus will find a way
for you.’ People are flocking to Born Again churches because they have no alternative hence
hence they need solace.”Was his explanation as to why we have empty chairs in Theatres while Born Again churches are full.

However, there is another group of Ugandans in dire need of intellectual satisfaction and change
in search of serious art. Of course we have Ugandans with money, These you find in
Wandegeya, Kabalagala and Ntinda hanging out and drinking.

Some of these are parents who can’t risk taking their children to the theatre because the inevitable like spontaneous nudity can happen.

Going forward, marketing is pertinent, reversing the idea that this is katemba–the idea that
people are just fooling around. Nudity might be selling today, but it might not for long. People
will get tired of it. Right thinking artists must be ready when the tide turns.
To advance, micro-management of productions has to stop. There are so many layers that cover
Theatre management; Excellent division of labor and tasks generates hoopla and publicity.

Sadly, akin to masturbation, many strive for self-gratification. In the end it becomes hard to say someone is good at something when they are judging themselves.

As much as he identified that setback, Rwangyezi said he is working around fixing his strategy at
Ndere Center as well. Ndere Center needs a producer, someone who can oversee a team, devise
a budget, decide which productions go on stage, which seasons will focus on which plays.

Say, reviving plays from eras past. They’ll need someone knowledgeable about the education
curriculum to oversee the production of dramatic literature, facilitate discussions with students at
the end of productions. And while this is happening, new work is in development for future

Commercialization of Art because to many this is their source of livelihood is to be expected, but
this is no excuse for compromising quality. Rwangyezi said that he was thinking about income
when he started Ndere Troupe. However, he wasn’t looking at income he could generate that day
or the next day.

Creating good art takes time, artists need to strive for quality. Just as there are people who buy a
Land Rover, there will always be people who can pay to see a good show.

With slight reconstructions, this condensed narrative was generated from conversations I had with
Stephen Rwangyezi earlier this year

on twitter @mbaganire

  • Branco

    Good reflections on the state of art and its consumption ideologies. All said sounds valid to a greater extent. Its going to take a few brains to inspire new thinking and practices about art. For now, no one seems to care. Many are seemingly looking for quick economic gains at the expense of the quality and values of art. True, institutions like Makerere need to wake up with new dynamic and practical strategies through curriculum revisits, workshops, seminars, conferences, and new quality and inspiring art. Short of that Art is indeed lying in an open coffin.

  • dsyliver

    And thats a big point