By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published January 12, 2011
Catherine Fellows, a BBC World Service Radio drama producer, was recently in Kampala, Uganda to produce two of the three 2010 BBC African Performance Play Writing Competition stories by Ugandan playwrights. The first, second and third prizes in this year’s competition were won by Ugandan playwrights upstaging the Nigerians for the first time in the 50-year history of the popular annual radio drama event. The top prize went to Will Smith Look Alike, written by Deborah Asiimwe. Joint second prize went to Kitu Kidogo by Atwine Bashir Kenneth and The Coffin Factory by last year’s winner Julia Childs.The third prize went to The Cow Needs A Wife by Angella Emurwon. Fellows talks to BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI about the status of African radio drama.
What do you find interesting in the BBC African drama performance? The BBC African Performance Play Writing Competition offers the opportunity for unknown, up-and-coming African writing talent to shine. In fact, to my knowledge, it is unique; there is no other play writing competition, radio or otherwise, on the continent. Not only does the competition give new writers recognition and encouragement but having won the competition they will be taken much more seriously by publishers; they get media exposure.
They also get to see their work produced by and broadcast on one of the world's most famous and most respected media houses, the BBC. Our judges are also people of great standing in the world of African literature and the performing arts. As you know, this year we were honoured to have one of Africa's most famous writers, Wole Soyinka, as our judge. Personally, I find it interesting, as well as humbling and hugely inspiring, to think that every year approximately 500 Africans are finding time to sit in their living rooms, in libraries and in schools and colleges to put pen to paper and create believable characters and gripping or hilarious stories. There is clearly so much imagination, talent and application out there.
What impact has the programme had on radio drama on the African continent since its inception in 1971? Clearly the picture in terms of how much radio drama exists and whether this has increased or decreased since 1971 varies from country to country. The positive response we receive from audiences suggests that the BBC African Performance season has kept an appetite for radio drama alive even in countries which produce no radio drama of their own. FM stations that the BBC partners with around the continent have always been keen to broadcast the plays. In broader terms, the hugely successful Nollywood industry that has grown up since 1971 demonstrates that there is an enormous appetite in Africa for home grown drama. People on the continent want to hear stories about people like them, that they can relate to, written and acted by people like them. BBC African Performance has always offered this experience. What critical observations have you made over the years as one of the BBC World Service’s Radio drama director in regards to writing skills and the themes of plays submitted in the competition? I have been involved in reading and short listing entries to the competition for almost ten years now. During that time I have seen a marked improvement in quality. Time was when the majority of offerings were hand written, and poorly written. Now most are professionally presented and many are of a very high standard. When I was first involved in the competition many plays were 'message driven' – characters were just vehicles for a rather heavy handed punch line such as 'girls need education too' or 'drink too much and you will lose your job'.
These days, plays are much more subtle and much more entertaining, with, in the case of shortlisted plays, rounded believable characters who have human strengths, weaknesses and individual quirks. This is not to say that plays today do not deal with important issues: they do. In recent years we have had a play that conveyed movingly the impact of domestic violence upon a child, another that used a chicken and a hyena to explore issues of identity and belonging and conformity, and this year's winners tackle, amongst other things, corruption, and the false promise of a better life in America. Today's writers seem to be much better at capturing the natural rhythms of speech. They are also better at structuring a half hour play so that it develops from an engaging opening, through unexpected twists and turns, culminating in a satisfying ending.
In your years as BBC director of drama what play stands out as your best in the African playwright performance competition?
This is another difficult question – you are asking me to choose between my babies! There are two plays I had the pleasure and privilege to direct that really stand out though.
The first was called 'Soldier Boy'. It was written by South African writer Kobus Moolman and it was a fantastically intricate piece of work which exploited the potential of radio to the full. The story centred around a young Afrikaans man who had returned home from fighting in Angola with the South African Defence Force. He was deeply traumatised by his experience and the play involved many flashbacks to fighting and explosions which myself and my sound recordist recreated in the edit suite with layers and layers of sound effects.
The second play I have mentioned already. Called 'Belonging' and written by Zimbabwean Mirirai Moyo, it was an unlikely love story between a chicken and a hyena. Once again, this was the perfect play for radio, allowing the listener's imagination to soar beyond the improbable and engage with the wit and seriousness of the writing. I managed to find actors who brilliantly and hilariously mimicked the animals they were supposed to be, but at the same time were able to convey deep emotion. When the wise hyena died and the poor little chicken who doesn't want to be a chicken is forced to return to her flock, who care about nothing but eating and preening, many of us were in tears.
Are Africans good writers?
Haven't I said enough?!
How do you compare them with those from outside Africa?
This is a good subject for a thesis! However, I suspect that the ability to tell a good story in a compelling way doesn't have anything to do with where in the world you come from.
Are women writers active in this regard?
This year, three of our four winners are women. I haven't done the maths but my perception is that roughly half of our entries are written by women.
How would you describe the state of radio drama in Africa? I fear there is not as much radio drama in Africa as there used to be – or as there should be.
What is the future of the industry?
I would hope that radio drama has a vibrant future for the reasons below.
What is the role of radio drama in the continent’s development? Radio drama can be a very powerful way of communicating. It taps into a tradition and culture of story telling and oral history and brings it up to date. Though of course many Africans are avid readers, many (I am told) would prefer to listen to a story and hear it brought alive by a fellow human being. Home grown radio dramas such as the African Performance plays are also forming part of the literary and cultural heritage of contemporary Africa. The continent has been flooded for too long by foreign culture – Hollywood movies, British literature, Brazilian soaps etc. Now, Africans are increasingly valuing their own work. Surely pride and self-belief must be the bedrock of development?
What are the challenges of radio drama in Africa? It is relatively expensive to produce radio drama – but not nearly as expensive as TV or film. You need good actors and good writers, and I know from experience that these exist in Uganda. It helps to have expertise in recording and editing, and up-to-date equipment.
Will theatre performance in Africa survive the other modes of entertainment like television, cinema and sports? I suspect it will because, in my own country, Britain, theatre is thriving despite the presence of TV, cinema and sports wherever you look. However I was saddened when I was in Kampala last week that a theatre performance I attended drew such a tiny audience. If theatre is to survive it needs to market itself in an increasingly competitive entertainment environment.