Playwright Kalungi Ssebandeke lives the dream in first outing as director

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He’s a multi-talented Ugandan artist, about to direct his first main work on a London stage. Kalungi Ssebandeke got here to the UK from Kampala on the age of 10, fell in love with the humanities, and has rapidly established himself as ‘one to look at’. As a playwright, his debut providing Assata Taught Me premiered at London’s Gate Theatre (2017). Since then, he has gained a string of prestigious arts awards, together with the Bush Theatre’s Passing The Baton (2018), the Roland Rees Bursary (2020), and the distinguished 2023 JMK Award. Interview by Juanne H Fuller.

Initially, congratulations! How excited are you to be engaged on this mission?  

Very, very excited! It’s all the time been my dream to be on the helm of a play as a director. I really feel that I’ve been working in the direction of this second by my appearing, writing, and even to a sure diploma, my music making. Bringing collectively all these completely different visions.

The play you’re presently directing, Mustapha Mutura’s ‘Conferences’, is about in Trinidad and Tobago within the 1980’s.  As a director, how did you put together for this manufacturing?

From the start I undoubtedly felt I wanted to analysis the nation – I wanted to be there. Sure, as a author, director or actor, you should use your creativeness, however nothing beats truly being there! Now, granted this play is about within the 80’s, so lengthy earlier than I used to be born [he laughs]. I couldn’t return in time, however what I might do was journey round, converse, and hearken to the locals, and simply get a vibe of the island. This meant that when it got here to visualising sure facets within the play, I might see the those that had been being spoken about. Once they talked about George Road or Port of Spain, I might think about what it will have seemed like again then. Additionally, having each actor Martina Laird (who grew up in T&T) on board, in addition to our cultural guide Jim Findley, has been a blessing. They’ve each been a invaluable supply of information.

What did your further analysis uncover?

Trinidad and Tobago as twin islands are essential in Caribbean historical past – American historical past as effectively. Famously, T&T born civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, later often known as Kwame Ture, coined the time period ‘Black Energy’ when he was a part of the coed nonviolent committee within the US. He was then band from going again to Trinidad as a result of it was throughout a time when Trinidad itself was having its personal ‘Black Energy’ awakening, so that they didn’t need any further hearth! So, you’ve bought a lot historical past coming from this comparatively small island, and for me, it was one of many causes I selected this play. I felt like I needed to dive deeper into it.

On the coronary heart of the play are a married couple who discover themselves wanting very various things out of life. It’s laugh-out-loud humorous at occasions, but additionally very poignant and political. As a director, how laborious has it been it been to straddle the comedy with the politics?

It’s a giant problem, however I believe we’ve achieved it by going again to fundamentals and understanding what the characters need. It feels just like the comedy comes out of fact. As soon as we get to the reality of it, then issues are going to be humorous naturally. We aren’t actively making an attempt to ‘play the comedy’, it simply occurs to be that the characters are going by this stuff, and they’re very obsessed with them.

The play additionally explores identification and belonging – points that can resonate with your personal story of migration. You got here to the UK on the age of 10. What was it like for you leaving every little thing you knew in Uganda?

I noticed it as an excellent factor, to be sincere with you, as a result of it was a chance to hitch the remainder of my household. I had spent the primary 10 years of my life with my auntie, uncle and cousins. My mother and father and siblings had been all right here within the UK. I didn’t see many British movies rising up – I knew little or no concerning the UK, however London notably had been introduced as this unimaginable place. I bear in mind youngsters used to make jokes at college in Uganda.

Someone would say “let me have some”, however the way in which they pronounced ‘some’, sounded just like the title ‘Sam’. So, they might say “let me have Sam” and somebody would reply, “Sam lives in London”!! [we both laugh] And that’s my dad’s title. I used to be like, how do they know my Dad lives in London [more laughter]?!!  It was all the time a joke, as youngsters we needed to be in London or the UK or US.  We used to do position play of us being in movies and TV and utilizing a loopy American accent. So, packing my stuff and relocating to the UK was thrilling. After all, through the years (as an grownup) it’s grow to be slightly extra nuanced. It’s not all ‘milk and honey’.

What was your first reminiscence of the UK?

It’s humorous, one of many first issues I bear in mind doing once I stepped into our flat in South London was (TV) channel browsing and discovering Sky Motion pictures. And I used to be like, there may be complete channel JUST for films?! Again house I used to be used to getting a VHS video to look at – actually the primary movie I watched again in Uganda was Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and it was dubbed! We had VJ’s (video jockeys) again then, who had been mainly audio describing the movie. So, one thing would occur, and they might describe it in Luganda (often in a humorous manner that will make the viewers snigger). So, getting my head across the reality there was a complete channel dedicated to films was huge!

I’m serious about your training. Beginning a brand new faculty anyplace, at any time, could be daunting. However in a brand new nation, with a distinct accent, maybe even tougher. How was it for you?

You hit the nail on the pinnacle. It was tough. I began in time for the brand new time period, however I used to be 10 years previous, and it was the ultimate yr of major faculty. To be sincere, youngsters had been making enjoyable of my accent, even as much as the tip of secondary faculty. It was powerful as a result of, you realize, coming from Uganda, I had simply left the most effective colleges there and I used to be fairly educational. My mum used to reward me for that and use me for example to my siblings! After which I got here right here to the UK, and I believe there was an assumption that I wasn’t good.

I’ve a profound reminiscence of us working in small teams and a trainer asking, “the place are potatoes historically from”?  I mentioned Eire. And instantly somebody mentioned it may’t be that. Now granted this isn’t the right reply, however the motive I used to be so assured was as a result of in Uganda we known as them Irish potatoes. Nevertheless it was simply that dismissal of something I mentioned. Entering into secondary faculty, I excelled in languages. My aunt in Uganda was a French trainer, so I already knew little bits, and I ended up taking my GCSE French early. I additionally picked up Japanese and did that at GCSE. stage. However trying again at different topics, I believe I used to be put into decrease teams as a result of there was an assumption that I used to be in all probability not that good, and finally I began to purchase into that.

What’s your relationship like with Uganda now? Do you get to return usually?

I do truly. I strive to return a minimum of every year. Final time I used to be there was in April, and I find it irresistible! I like Uganda. After all, no nation is ideal, the UK and US included.

Uganda does have its imperfections and issues, however as a rustic and a individuals we persevere – like many African international locations have persevered. And our individuals, each in Uganda and the diaspora, discover methods to prosper regardless of the challenges they’re met with.

Do you could have ambitions of working within the arts in Uganda at some point?

Sure, please! [laughs]. My dream can be to begin a performing arts faculty or mission, the place I contribute to the artistic industries. I’d like to be on the helm of coaching the long run technology of Ugandan actors, writers, administrators, and stage managers. You understand, take all the nice stuff I’ve discovered right here within the UK, and put it into the Ugandan context. I’m making contacts. There’s a nice theatre known as Yenze Theatre Conservatoire, and I’m in dialog with the Inventive director about methods by which we will presumably work collectively sooner or later. There are such a lot of proficient creatives in Uganda which might be working in the direction of constructing our artistic trade and I’d like to be part of that.

There was one thing of sea change in your trade again in 2020, or definitely a wave of optimism that issues can be radically completely different for Black creatives in Britain. Do you’re feeling there was any lasting change?

If I’m sincere I believe there have been loads of issues that occurred that felt like ‘knee jerk’ reactions. Some issues have continued, others have disappeared. Proof of that’s the quick turnover of non-white Inventive Administrators within the UK since 2020. It’s actually unhappy.

One optimistic factor that got here out of that point for me personally although, was that it was when my directing began taking form. I pivoted my focus from writing to directing, and that’s one thing that has snowballed, and I hope will probably be long-lasting. I additionally constructed some nice relationships with completely different theatres.

You’re a Author/Actor/Director. Do you assume is necessary to be multi-disciplined on this trade?

Completely, it’s so necessary. In any other case, you gained’t work, you gained’t eat, you gained’t survive! I believe a few of my favorite creatives, like Michaela Coel and Kane Robinson (AKA Kano) show you are able to do that – you are able to do a number of issues. For a few of us this comes out of necessity.

What does your dream job appear to be, Kalungi?

Oooo!! [Laughs] My dream job appears like me writing, directing and appearing in my very own collection. I’d additionally wish to direct a play I’m appearing in as effectively. I wish to problem myself and do issues creatively that individuals say shouldn’t be finished. I believe I’m working in the direction of it, truly.  

Conferences’ opens on the Orange Tree Theatre in south-west London, on 18 October, and runs till 11 November.


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