PERFORMANCE IS POWER: REFLECTIONS ON WRITIVISM 2016; RESTORING CONNECTIONS by Jacob Katumusiime
Prior to the 2016 Writivism festival, Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE) ran an inquiry into what people expected. I didn’t know what to expect. I came determined to give myself away to the festival. From 22nd-28th August, the Uganda Museum hosted various activities. And like a fresh lover, I was dedicated to attending all the events despite some of them happening at the same time.
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Before too long, I found myself married to the performances at the festival. I wasn’t alone. The first performance evening was Harriet Anena’s. It found literature lovers hanging outside the museum, their mouths in conversation with the Ugandan Rolex, all waiting for the performance hour.
Maimouna Jallow performs Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
As a staunch protestant Christian, hearing a stage performance dubbed “I bow for my boobs: a poetry erotica,” would normally leave me reciting the Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do prayer. On this occasion, I was willing to sin a bit.
Anena treated the audience to a powerful stage performance that gripped the attendees by the necks, tied them to their seats and once in a while tickled them. The Museum Main Hall became like a labour ward and the occupants were the nation in labour.
I think the times have changed and performances have turned away from purely cultural to socio-political performances. Contemporary performances should thus aim at what Anena did; pounding social reality in the minds of the audience. The weapon she used was grim humour. She attacked the giant politician with sexual motifs and rubbed dirt in the eyes of the audience. She teased them, the way the political giant does to the citizens. Foreigners who attended couldn’t resist pitying the citizen. The citizen couldn’t resist feeling guilty for fuelling the politician’s bulldozer. And as Anena bent to bow for her boobs, I bent to bow for my nipples. The heaviness that filled everybody’s heart thereafter could only be quenched by extended conversations in the hotels where the guests were staying. And that night I dreamt of the police raiding us whilst in the Museum and whisking off some attendees. I couldn’t believe that a performance could hold such power. Robert Frost might have been in the same state when he claimed that a poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loveliness.
Then came the performance of Lola Shoneyin`s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi`s Wives by Maimouna Jallow. It was curtain-raised by Rehema Nanfuka`s performance of Doreen Baingana`s Tropical Fish. Rehema managed to breathe life into Baingana`s print material. She came singing, sat, stood, smiled and screamed the realities of life, the absurdity of dreaming, which many youths find themselves entangled in. At a point, I allowed my tears to grease my cheeks. Many were like me. I could tell from their silence.
Our only relief (if it was that) came from Jallow`s performance. She dramatized the patriarchal society that many in the audience were consciously or unconsciously part of. We were persuaded to sympathize with Baba Segi`s four wives, whether they were in the wrong or not. Jallow`s oral narrative was more captivating than the text itself. She accorded each wife a distinct voice, one that suitably shed their tears and fears. At the end of each wife`s voice, patriarchal robes fell from our gowns (at least for me). And I believe that if we are to break all the patriarchal chains that permeate society, we should embrace performances not only in our festivals but also in conferences, churches, schools and homes.
Live staged reading
Need I talk about the poetry performances that came in again and again during the different sessions? It was evident that literature is more influential in performance than in print format. When Nakisanze Segawa recited from her historical novel, The Triangle, literature pundits like Dr. Susan Kiguli sparked a discussion on the beauty of the Luganda version (in which the recital was) as compared to the written English text.
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And on one of the school visits, the writers` caravan that visited Gayaza High School returned in admiration of the girls` awesome stage performance of Chuma Nwokolo`s Diaries of A Dead African. These girls had earlier staged a poetry performance that left everybody’s hands helplessly clapping and whistling in ecstasy during one of the sessions. Kenya’s spoken word poetess, Sitawa Namwalie and Uganda’s Hip-Hop artist and poet, Ruyonga constantly reminded the audience that there is power in performance through their recitals. You could feel the urge to react throughout the performances and it made me think more vividly about David Carradine’s assertion that if you cannot be a poet, be the poem. And poetry to John F. Kennedy is that which cleanses when power corrupts.
I came away from the Writivism Festival feeling that performances be given a more expansive platform than other forms of literature because they have the power to preach the invisible more vividly and trigger social change. The question however remains; how are we going to achieve the mission? Ugandan poet Peter Kagayi is striving to see performance come to its adolescence through his Poetry Shrine. Perhaps, buses like his are the right ones to board.
Harriet Anena performs I Bow for my Boobs
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