Who do you think you are? Because we are not studied like you,
because we do not ride a motorbike like you, you think we don't dream?
Ndeeba, even poor people like us dream.

—Deborah Asiimwe, Cooking Oil

actors on stage
Cooking Oil by Deborah Asiimwe; directed by Emily Mendelsohn. Photo by Andy Featherston.

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 theatre (public parking, offices, wedding meetings) and the enterprising networks of artists that claim this space as a center, the theatre 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 theatre 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.

And then because of the Fulbright Fellowship, I had the great privilege to stay in Kampala for another year beyond the performance. I taught at Makerere University, collaborated with National Theater artists, and also worked on several theatre projects in Kigali, Rwanda. The more time I spent in Rwanda and Uganda, the more inexpert I became. I didn’t know how to negotiate for a good price for chapati in the market. I didn’t know how to negotiate a conflict without resorting to isolation. I didn’t know how to spend long, unstructured time with people. I didn’t know how to respond to the poverty that I passed sometimes on the street or that filled the valley below the US Embassy. I didn’t know how to understand its relationship to global policies and systems in which I participate. I didn’t know how to see the paradoxical nuances of a (mostly) peaceful electoral process that reelected an entrenched leadership accused of corruption or an NGO that skimmed some money but also housed and schooled children affected by war. I didn’t understand resilience or gratitude or the generosity to invest overtime at a university giving students tools to tell their own stories for less income than I made as a Fulbright student. I didn’t know how to respond.


Deborah and I met as graduate students at CalArts. She arrived in Los Angeles from Kampala as high-ranking public officials in Uganda pocketed millions in Global Funds meant for AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria workshops. In Uganda, Deborah had written forum theatre plays for clinics distributing AIDS medications and had a personal face for these patients. American tax dollars make up a good percentage of Global Fund resources, and Deborah, living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, began to ask questions about the relationship of the people around her and the intended beneficiaries of these funds. She learned about the gathering concern that the foreign aid industry has not improved daily life in sub-Saharan Africa. Voices, like Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid, worry industry practices promote corruption by removing access to resources from accountability to citizenry, promote dependency by forcing recipients to buy supplies or labor from donor countries, and frustrate agency by imposing solutions that are out of cultural or practical context.

Scene from Cooking Oil. Photo by Andy Featherston.

In Cooking Oil, a “developing world” community tells the story of a murdered young girl and the corrupt politician who caused her death. Both characters sold cooking oil meant as aid to their hard hit village. The politician pocketed millions of Ugandan shillings; the young girl thousands (the equivalent of a couple of US dollars). The community begins their story seeking vengeance, but their understanding of justice becomes more complex as the storytelling reveals their own silent culpability in her death. In the end, this revelation includes the complicity of the audience. I’d say there’s a parallel to the journey of the play and the journey of our process. The work began with an aesthetic I was directing at an ensemble and a message I was directing at an audience. It became a deeper inhabiting of questions, together.

The next summer, Cooking Oil was offered an opportunity to continue developing in Rwanda. I made the nine-hour bus ride to Kigali with three performers from the Ugandan production: Tonny Muwangala, Sam Lutaaya, and Alan Kagusuru. We partnered with an extraordinary team of Rwandan musicians and actors affiliated with Ishyo Arts Centre. Like much of the performance scene in Kigali, Ishyo began from artists’ responses to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Rwanda, a much smaller country than Uganda, has one local language, Kinyarwanda, and one culture. The two socioeconomic classes of Rwanda were polarized by German and Belgian colonists, and this polarization was exacerbated to genocide by an extremist Hutu Power government. The genocide was ended by a mostly Tutsi army entering from Uganda and the government they established, headed by Paul Kagame, has made incredible strides building infrastructure, innovating systems for justice and healing, and investing in Rwanda’s economy. Rehearsing a scene in which a politician preaches change to a rural community, I direct the crowd, “Imagine this man comes through promising to empower you to define your own growth and represent you to the world.” The Ugandan cast is incredulous. The village would recognize this immediately as empty rhetoric. Flora Kaitesi, a Rwandan journalist and performer responds it is possible. It is, in fact, Rwanda’s story.

In our ten-day workshop we trained our physical listening borrowing from Viewpoints and Suzuki, and we approached the text as music. As a child, Deborah studied Ekyevugo, an oral art form usually performed by men. I began to consider the rhythmically driven structures of Deborah’s writing through the tiny bit I knew of these praise poems. They involve call and response. In the performance, the performer does not perform a character; they channel language. Their performance is driven by rhythm and breath. My own theatrical background stressed physical entry points to presence and emotional landscapes, and I intuited the team had their own entry points into this work even if it wasn’t their go-to picture for “theatre.” So I started to ask performers to make large gestural or musical choices and then I asked questions. What do you experience? How does this feel useful in telling this story? We started to develop a language together. My tools and lenses began to feel like Uganda’s National Theater, something to be overflown, to be offered up for use in a way beyond my control.

Scene from Cooking Oil. Photo by Andy Featherston

At Ishyo, we took the play out of the theatre. There is an African philosophy: I am because we are. Desmond Tutu articulates this proverb as, “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.” Stepping out of the theatre was a literal action: the audience and performers formed a circle together in an outside covered patio overlooking a new housing development. Using spare objects, we invoke a world and invite the audience’s participation as coimaginers of this world. Stepping out of the theatre also invoked something deeper. These aren’t radical ideas or techniques on either continent, but the process by which we arrive at them together asked for a radical listening, and a sustained conversation across differences of lived experience, culture, race, sexual identity, and global economies.

From this reading, Deborah rewrote the play. She went in saying she was combining two similar characters, but what came out was a deeper questioning of our complicity in creating cultures of corruption and alienation. This shift is not just about making a richer play. It’s about making a richer life. How, in my rehearsal process, do I rigorously pursue my sense of the beautiful, while understanding that sense to be contingent, limited? How do I create spaces for listening that allow new relationships, perspectives, and strategies to emerge? It’s small, but I believe change comes from smallness. My job, as an artist and person, is perhaps to be in the world, to be open here. 

Cooking Oil continued its exchange through a two week workshop at In Movement, a Kampala arts and social justice center, August 2012. This June 2013, four artists traveled from Kampala and Kigali to join local artists for another two-week workshop and presentation/discussions at ATX Warehouse in Los Angeles presented by Los Angeles Performance Practice and the Center for New Performance.