In Awe in East Africa

Philip Himberg is Producing Artistic Director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program. He is currently at the Theatre Lab on Manda, a two-week exchange and development program providing East African artists with guidance in their creative development toward final production.

Bounding over the waves of the Indian Ocean under a moonless sky, no lights on our little boat. Kapala, the captain, is guiding it, as sure as sea man as ever lived, and I am looking skyward because the lights of the milky way are the only spots of illuminating and I am in awe. In awe that I am here, that the kid who grew up in suburban Connecticut is somehow responsible for these 20 some odd East African and American artists, gliding through the pitch black ocean, on our way home from Lamu town.

Today was a day off, and after lunch, most of us piled into the Dhow called Angalia, which means "To Look For", and cruised over to Lamu, a World Heritage Site. My staff and I know this town pretty well now, as it's our third year here. Some of the townspeople remember us well, and welcome us warmly. We have a drink with Hadija, an American born but now Lamu resident, and discuss the changing landscape of this place. An international port is planned for this tiny village and it will undoubtedly change everything about it. People are scared, people are anxious; people are being promised the moon. We shall all see.

Later, at Mama Baraka's shop, I pick up some gifts for family and friends - brilliant yellow silk scarves and beautiful handmade jewelry. We then all board the Dhow for a 20-minute ride to Shela Beach, the more 'upscale' part of this island where we are being offered dinner at Suno Osterweiss' home. Suno is a San Francisco-based friend who has opened up her home to us, even though she cannot be there to host us herself. Her son, Max, who splits his time between Nairobi and New York (and is a fabulously successful fashion designer) has arranged for our 24 person crew to dine at the family home. And what a home it is!! Dinner is oysters, calamari and then giant lobsters and prawns - and a full bar. What a way to end our single day off at the Lab!

But it's on the way back in the smaller boat, with the stars above me, that my gratitude seems boundless. So many local people have opened their hearts and their homes to us. As my Jewish-Russian grandmother often said, "Never a dull moment."

Directing an Ethiopian play means that my life is far from dull. I adore my playwright, Meaza Worku Berehanu, a young woman from Addis Ababa, who has written a play that defies the accepted cultural norms of subject matter and genre in her native country. Briefly, the story concerns a three-time divorced woman who recalls and conjures each of her three husbands, while a couple next door fight and love loudly.

The woman talks directly to the audience, which is not a convention in Ethiopian theatre, and she is not only a 'liberated' woman, but also a passionate, over-emotional and rather outrageous figure. Mũmbi Kaigwa, a well-known Nairobi actress plays Marta and Ugandan actor, Philip Luswata, plays each of the three husbands. What makes this process even more special is that Meaza and her fellow Ethiopian artist, Andnet Dagnew requested that a portion of the play be rehearsed in Amharic, as well as English.

Have any of you ever seen the Amharic alphabet??!!? It's a great challenge for me, and I'm embracing it. This past week, the cast and I have asked dozens and dozens of questions, and have challenged Meaza to be sure that what she wants to say, is articulately and poetically put forth. We've divided the play into scenes, and beats, and each beat into intention and conflict, and we've debated endlessly the right English phrase to properly convey the writer's intention. It's been rigorous, and painstaking. Tomorrow we will continue this process but add a tiny bit of staging to one scene.

So, we are a bit over half way through the 2011 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab on Manda and the week ahead promises new challenges and adventures—no doubt!

Lead photo: