Citizenship as Listening: “Cooking Oil” in Kampala, Kigali, and Los Angeles –
by Emily Mendelsohn
Ugandan playwright Deborah Asiimwe invited me to direct Cooking Oil in Uganda, and through a Fulbright Fellowship and a grant from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, I was able and eager—and perhaps somewhat unprepared—to accept her invitation. Deborah weaves emotional, contemporary characters in mythic, musically-structured journeys. Her writing flows between the character’s inner world to memory to scene to song to direct audience address. As a director, I responded to the room her fluid worlds and imagistic writing conjures to imagine the world of the storytellers: to stage the fire and the moment the sparks happen to jump and the singing that wafts over the field, or how the dawn comes; to stage the context in which we meet the story and it settles itself into our bodies.
Deborah, producer Miranda Wright, designer Shannon Scrofano and a team of eleven Ugandan actors and musicians presented the play at Uganda’s 360 red-velvet-seat proscenium National Theater in Kampala. Between revenue-generating projects by the theater (public parking, offices, wedding meetings) and the enterprising networks of artists that claim this space as a center, the theater building and grounds overflow with activity. Rehearsals occur in the restaurant, the hallway, in the cafe with another groups’ rehearsal, on the lawn. The use-relationship of the colonial architecture speaks to an artistic project of Uganda. The country borders enclose maybe six major indigenous nations, and over forty languages. As opposed to dictating structure, the theater building is one more (power-fraught) tool in a wealth of inherited cultural materials, practices, and values drawn on to articulate a contemporary Ugandan identity. The fullness of the national project and the space were exciting and I wanted to take everything I saw and put it on stage—glass soda bottles, cassava, a charcoal stove—to authentically engage the material of this new world and to teach a physical performance style that incorporated cultural material: traditional and contemporary songs and dances in the bodies of the performers.