Judith Adong: Writing For A Brighter Tomorrow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photos from New Black Fest Courtesy of Judith Adong

Playwright, filmmaker, lecturer and Ugandan native Judith Adong recently talked with PrideIndex about her play  “Just Me, You and THE SILENCE,” the gay suffrage movement in Africa and its importance to the plight of black community worldwide.

PRIDEINDEX: In 2011 you were the only African writer among the other International writers to attend the Royal Court Theater in London. What was that experience like?

JUDITH ADONG: It was amazing, The Royal Court Theater provided the kind of support system a playwright needs to develop his/her play that the Royal Court Theatre provided. Everyone was so supportive and enthusiastic. It made me wonder how many other great plays would be coming from Africa if they all had that kind of support system with amazing mentors. I met so many renowned British playwrights and learned so much from their creativity, wisdom and experience.

What was very refreshing for me was the support within the 10 participating playwrights. Even though we were all aware that the Royal Court Theatre would produce one or two plays from our submissions, everyone was so cooperative and supportive without any unhealthy competitions. We met every evening to share how our days went, some ideas we had about our plays and doubts we were dealing with. It was so beautiful sharing space and ideas with other people with whom thought along the same wave length and shared the same passions. All participating plays were revolutionary and it was amazing to meet the most beautiful writers’ family. And even though we are back into our own countries now, we continue to support each other online.

Above all, it gave me the space for self-actualization among international practitioners. At home I have been accused of being too overly ambitious. This experience made me realize, if anything, I was not as much ambitious as I should be. Creativity should not be limited by principles but rather explored even if it means going outside the realms of common principles of the writing trade.

PI: When did you first know you wanted to be a playwright?

JA: To be honest, I became a playwright by accident. My motivation for joining the Department of Music, Dance and Drama as a student in 1998 was to become a filmmaker. I’d just watched my first African film, Consequences, from Zimbabwe. But as it turned out, there wasn’t a film-making program at Makerene University, only theater. So that is what I pursued. But it was a happy accident because I enjoyed storytelling and playwright became my best performed element. My professor told me I was gifted and this encouraged me to pursue it more seriously. But over time, I became bored since I wasn’t experiencing any exciting moments in theater in my country. The plays I went to watch were….and my attempts to write what I believed was more boundary breaking plays were met with negative responses from my fellow artist, who I tried to bring on board in collaboration. Most thought my play was too ambitious and set in too many places with use of multiple media until my encounter with the Sundance Institute Theater Program. I submitted a play and it aroused positive discussions. I remember sharing with my mentors during this meeting that the experience re-incarnated me into theater. I finally saw what I came to believe as the errors of the Ugandan theater-too many classical principle limitations on theater, which is not giving room for contemporary theater to break boundaries and grow in a way that excites and challenges the audience. “Just Me, You and THE SILENCE” became my second play after my re-incarnation, knowing that I didn’t have to limit myself to place but embrace the endless theatrics at my disposal gave me freedom  to create it with a ease artistically. My biggest challenge was content-getting the LGBTQI issues right considering the sensitivity of the subject.

PI: What do you want people to take away from your work?

JA: Hum, this is a tough one. Firstly, I want people to care about the little bits that are always quickly ignored. For instance the general feeling among Ugandans that gay people are way out there and since it doesn’t affect them directly they don’t care. But the truth gay people belong to a family too and in the end if the anti-gay bill becomes law all families will affected.

I want to provoke critical thinking as opposed to moralization. I believe Ugandans are too quick at moralization than rational thinking. When they saw the  title The Vagina Monologue the play was immediately condemned and it never saw the Ugandan theaters because  some influential people said, “Just translate that title into any of the local languages and you will see how vulgar it sounds.” So, no one even bothered to read the play or use critical thinking before condemning it.

PI: Name at least 3 people that have most influenced your artistic style.

JA: I am not sure what my artistic style is but African writers I admire  are Ousmane Sembene, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Athol Fugard, Ngugi W’ Thiongo and Meja Mwangi. Unfortunately, here at home  we’re not exposed to any works of international contemporary playwrights so we are stuck with the classical playwrights from Greek to Elizabethan theater. Most East Africans who have read my works say my writing is lyrical like the renowned Ugandan writer Okot P’ Bitek with titles line Song of Lawino, ‘Song of Malaya’ etc but I believe that could only be because we come from the same ethnic group, the Acholi who are a part of a bigger group of the Luo people (same people as Obama’s Kenyan father). The Luo languages are very lyrical so I believe in some way I bring that to my writing even though the writings are in English.

 “Just Me, You and THE SILENCE” Rehearsals

PI: If you could work with any actor or actress living or dead, who would you choose? Why?

JA: I love so many actors and actresses like Kimberly Elise, Denzel Washington, Sean Connery, etc but I guess if I had but only one choice, without a doubt, I would go with Sanaa Lathan. I can’t help falling in love with the characters for every role she’s played. It is the way she brings the characters to life that makes me feel and believe that she is them-and they exist!

PI: What are you working on professionally right now?

JA: Two projects:

After my Broadway experience of musicals during my Sundance Theater Residency, I am trying my hand at a musical too- a story of abuse of office telling of a woman’s encounter with five Ugandan so called professionals and their competition for the most dubious profession award.

The second is the story of child sacrifice, which has been rampant in Uganda. The story of a family haunted by the return of the ‘ghost’ of a son they’d sacrificed in search for wealth.

PI: Talk to us about your participation at The New Black Fest in NYC.

JA: Believe it or not, I submitted ‘Just Me, You and THE SILENCE’ as a response to a dare from a playwright friend of mine, who thought the play was too long. He argued that festivals only consider plays that are under one hour and my play is two hours. My argument was that I believe everyone looks for a great story first before other factors such as length. So, even though I felt like the play was still a working-progress, I submitted it and I was surprised when one day I opened my inbox and there was a mail of acceptance of the play to participate in the New Black Fest. And that is when I started getting excited about the opportunity to share the play with a real audience. Up until then, the play had only been experienced by mentors, fellow playwright participants at the Royal Court Theatre and a few friends.

But the experience was unbelievable. The most touching thing for me was how the whole team just got it! I had had very long debates with my Royal Court Theatre mentors about what I believed the story I wanted to tell was and what in my view was an African perspective and style of the story that I was very nervous about whether or not the American people would get. I am no different from other writers who can be such pains in the wrong place when in the same room as their plays are being rehearsed but in this case, I felt a great sense of calm because it felt like both the director and actors were in my subconscious and knew exactly the soul of the play. So, when the director and actors just got it, it was a huge burden lifted off my shoulder. The audience totally enjoying it was an icing to the cake. For the play to inspire a whole panel discussion on The Struggle for Gay Rights in Africa was very humbling for me even though it is what I am always aiming for. I have always wanted to be able to write plays that are thought-provoking-plays that inspire activities beyond the enjoyment of art yet without robbing them of the enjoyment of art. I think I achieved both with ‘Just Me, You and THE SILENCE. The audience had so much fun and yet had such great insights into the gay question in Uganda and I assume in Africa as the UN Senior Policy Advisor Dr. Cheikh Traore stated that as far as he was concerned the play may as well be the theme play for the gay rights struggle in Africa.

PI: Why do you believe “Just Me, You and THE SILENCE” is so important?

JA: The thought-provoking attribute of Just Me, You and THE SILENCE’ is  important to the entire black community all around the world. Someone in the black British community shared with me, there’s a belief, with varying degrees of course,  that to be gay  is a “white thing.” In Uganda, I know of many friends who embrace white gays but shun black gays because according to them, these are just misguided blacks who are embracing a white man’s culture for financial gains.

I believe because there is not much social research going on in Africa in this area the myths and misconceptions about gays  flourish. Some believe gays are sick, misguided, trying to survive financially by giving themselves to White tourists, are recruiting young children into the ‘practice,’  and gay people are imperfect or less human in some way.  It is such myths and misconceptions that my play tackles.

I believe the play is also important to the international world because it gives insights into the intricacies of the gay question in Uganda and/or Africa. Gay hatred has been escalated by opportunists who have taken advantage of the myths and misconceptions about LGBTQI people to create fear among the general public.

As the executive director of the Uganda National Theatre puts it: Just Me, You and THE SILENCE is a play with a great power to create a platform for a constructive round-table discussion of the LGBTQI question because it represents, in an interesting way, views from both the anti-gay and pro-gay camps.

PI: Why should African American gays care about their gay brothers and sisters in Africa or anywhere else in the world for that matter?

JA: Everyone gay or straight around the world, including non LGBTQI people in Uganda should care about their gay brothers and sisters that are persecuted in Africa and elsewhere first of all for the simple reason of humanity. I have  been asked if I was lesbian and why do I care to tell the story of the plight of gay people in Uganda. I can’t speak about the rest of the world but I believe this is a common attitude in Uganda. Most Ugandans will tell you, ‘I am not gay, so why should it be any of my business.’ But as a constant victim of tribal discrimination, I know that discrimination of any kind is detrimental not just to its victims but the society at large. It creates hatred, tension, terror, suspicions and a harbored feeling of revenge which is not good for the individual’s and society’s growth and development. A friend of mine captured this notion when she said, ‘I look forward to the day when homosexuals will dominate the world and heterosexuals are persecuted!’ it is our responsibility to contribute in breaking the chain the best way we know how. As a playwright, the best way I know how is by creating a play that touches us all to self-reflect and empathize with the LGBTI people in our community. It also reminds me of what Pastor Martin Niemoller said,

First they came for the communists

And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for trade unionist,

And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for Jews,

And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for Catholics

And I didn’t speak out because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me

And there was no one left to speak out for me.

But I also strongly believe that support from the African American gays and people would help in some way narrow the belief that to be gay is a White thing.

PI: What did you think of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent address of LGBT rights to the United Nations in Geneva?

JA: I thought it was  spot on about LGBTQI rights as human rights. I believe if many African/world leaders would be as spot on as she was then it would be a huge contribution to the LGBTQI cause. African leaders’ response to the gay question has only been two-fold: either outright negative or silence for fear of losing votes. In fact, every article about our president’s take on this issue seems to suggest that his attitude is no different from that of the majority Ugandans: If they are gay let them keep it to themselves. In other words, be gay secretly. This is clearly not fair. Heterosexual are not secretly heterosexuals so why should gay people? Are they less humans to deserve human rights and basic freedoms? SILENCE seems to be the thumb rule for many Ugandans except the Pentecostal churches with their huge attendance. The philosophy is, if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. This wall of silence that turns being gay into a kind of taboo must be broken like the sex topic used to be a taboo that had escalated the HIV prevalence due to lack of sex education for youths. This was broken by massive media and NGO programs about it. I have seen so many American gay couples get married and I believe all LGBTQI around the world are entitled to this right, freedom and the beautiful experience of a marriage between two people who love each-and Clinton’s speech emphasizes the same rights and freedoms for gay people.

PI: If you could address the United Nations on the plight of gays in African what would you tell them?

JA: Five things mainly about the gay rights struggle strategy:

The donation cuts threats to anti-gay nations is a great strategy because it speaks the politician’s language. However, the UN must devise strategies around the following areas:

To fight negative media PR for the LGBTQI people. The media has such great powers that whatever propaganda they spread, the general public takes it so seriously and across Africa, media reporting on gay people has been very biased and derogative. I would like to cite the example of my play Just Me, You and THE SILENCE. This is the first play by a Ugandan playwright based in Uganda to participate is a play reading festival of this kind in New York City. Usually this would be considered a huge achievement in Uganda but because of the subject matter of the play, the media choice not to cover it at all. A journalist of one of the leading dailies pitched the idea but it was shut down because according to the editors, they would have covered it if it were anti-gay but since by the end of the play the son of the Member of Parliament ‘turn out’ to be gay, it a clear show that the play is pro-gay. I must add that a number of journalists I met are very objective on the subject but the media houses and editors they work with are openly anti-gay so it doesn’t matter how many positive LGBTQI stories they would want to cover, the gatekeepers just block them.

To find a way of fighting international anti-gay donations especially in churches especially Pentecostal churches that openly preach gay hatred, in most cases to frustrated members of congregation bogged down by other challenges like economic crisis and are looking for anything/anyone to hate.

The importance of gay people taking back the power of the derogative languages used against them instead of being too sensitive to them, which I believe gives perpetrators too much power. I think we can learn from the African Americans. I believe they took the power of what used to be hurtful words such as nigger and it has lost the hurtful power it used to have. I don’t know about the rest of the world but my experience of the LGBTI community in Uganda is that they are very sensitive about language, which I believe gives the haters too much power. I have found this philosophy of taking back the power of derogative language to work wonders for me too. There are endless derogatory languages towards my ethnic group in my country but every time I am in a situation where I read that someone is about to use it on me in order to annoy me and therefore deny me a service or something, I use it first. I always go like, ‘yes, I am an ‘anyanya’ but you know that already so just give me the service I need then I can leave you alone. Do it even if it is to get rid of an ‘anyanya’ from your face.Then they become powerless to use it against me.

Last but not least, an arts fund for the gay rights struggle. Art and culture is not given the credit it deserves in helping in all kind of struggles around the world. But the power of storytelling cannot be underestimated- art touches people in ways that cannot be imagined. It has the power of empathy and reflecting to a society in its own image in a way that forces them to reflect deeply and in the end re-evaluate their attitudes. Positive change begins with a change in attitude.

PI: Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

JA: Until I have staged ‘Just Me, You and THE SILENCE’ in Uganda, I feel like my work is not yet done.

I would say strongly that human worth is not measured by their sexuality so that if their sexuality does not conform to the majority’s sexuality then they should be hanged. People are much more than their sexuality.

For this reason, I believe what Ugandans/Africans should look into is an amendment of the defilement law to protect all underage children-boys and girls from sexual abuse not an anti-gay law.

My great appreciation to all who share and believe in the views I uphold in Just Me, You and THE SILENCE, and have celebrated it with me!