“Olimba!” I begin in Luganda. The men in the ‘club’ shriek in delight that I am speaking their local language.
“Nze nina akabina. Temu kalabah kapapala.”
The audience erupts and I shake my bum wildly, fuelling their fire. It’s Valentine’s Day and I am guest starring in a Ugandan variety theatre show of epic proportions.
Just the day before I received a call from Victoria, a beautiful thirty year old woman and local celebrity – though I did not know this at the time. Her theatre company, The Ebonies, was in need of a white woman to appear in their L-O-V-E theatre special.
I didn’t so much agree as was swiftly implicated in the role. Vicky and her co-star, Preparation, collected me from my lunch, drove me to the outskirts of town and proceeded to train me for the entire afternoon. On a small, dark, improvised theatre stage, I found myself shaking my hips and wobbling my bum in front of 30 members of The Ebonies troupe. For them, this was very normal. For me, it was wonderfully liberating and disarmingly bizarre.
The premise of my scene is this: during a raucous night out, a man is boasting to his friends that has a muzungu for a girlfriend. And then, as it turns out, he does. I appear, shimmy through the 500-seat theatre, climb onto stage and demonstrate my total lust for him – and him only. I dance provocatively, speak the local language and then leave on his arm as the audience applauds at the spectacle.
With only 24 hours to learn 8 lines of Luganda dialogue, I was sent home to prepare.
The last theatre show I performed in was The Importance of Being Earnest in Ulanbataar, Mongolia. The entire cast were muzungus, though we weren’t called that there. It was a silly, insular attempt to create a familiar world for ourselves. I think I actually faked a British accent to make the whole experience more authentic.
By contrast, this Valentine’s Day theatre experience is entirely the opposite. It is whole-heartedly Ugandan and my muzungu-ness is a comedic after-thought.
Once in my floor length red and black sequinned gown, I pace the backstage area navigating the dancers as they change outfits and dodge small children accompanying their mothers who are selling drinks and rice. For two and a half hours, I repeat my Luganda lines again and again, stopping only to search haplessly for some paper towel to accompany a pleasant bout of anxiety diarrhoea.
“You liars!” I begin in Luganda. “I do have a bum. Watch me shake it!”
And the crowd goes wild.
In the hysteria of my impact, I freeze, my mouth goes dry and I forget my Luganda.There is nothing worse that live dead air. I smile but my mind remains blank. It may have only been a second or so but it felt like minutes.
And then I hear a voice in my ear. Ryan, a super sweet dancer, whispers my line as he slows his shimmying behind me. I repeat the line and the scene continues.
Once my speaking part is over, I lipsynch a Ugandan pop song and illustrate it with melodramatic movements. It is only during this dance that I am able to relax and enjoy the adrenaline of the stage. I haven’t been this nervous in a longtime and I am extraordinarily relieved to take off my gown and drink a litre or two of water. Nothing is more rewarding than being in such a disarmingly bizarre situation.
Here’s a preview of the first rehearsal:
[media url=”https://vimeo.com/59746807″ width=”600″ height=”400″]