Roadblocks and Bridges

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 19, No 1 (Spring 2008)

Roberta Levitow

It's a long plane ride from Los Angeles International Airport to Nairobi — twenty-four hours in the air, and you get there two days after you started. I arrived with a couple of extra boxes containing books — theater books of all kinds, textbooks, and play scripts. On the label I had boldly printed their destination: Ford Foundation East Africa Office, Rahimtulla Tower, Nairobi, Kenya. Perhaps because of this address — either that or the literature — I was able to pass through customs without paying the duty for which Kenyan Customs is notorious. Officially charged at their original value, these books should have cost me an additional $1,000. I was, in effect, carrying contraband.

The participants of the September 2001 East African Theatre Workshop were fourteen artists from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. They were leading artists in their countries — playwrights, directors, actors, producers, ranging from nineteen to fifty-four years old, eleven men and four women. In Nairobi, we worked every day for four weeks, from nine to five with a short lunch break. Local Kenyan women delivered home-cooked meals in plastic containers, alternating country-appropriate starchy dishes: ugali for the Kenyans, matoke for the Ugandans, rice and hot sauce on everything for the Tanzanians. Evenings we went to theater events or watched performance tapes that I'd brought from home.

On the first day of our workshop, I laid the books out on the small stage floor. Suddenly all fourteen participants, without speaking, walked up and stood silently; flipping through book after book, as if I had set out a sidewalk sale. A “lending library” was spontaneously constructed. Days later, deals were cut when one book became necessary to one individual or another, and upon my departure, the rest of the books were consigned to the Ford Foundation East Africa Office, where they could be lent out to those interested. Nowhere else was safe. Books would be stolen, I was told.

I was housed at the Fairview, a hotel well known to missionaries, nongovernmental organization aid workers, and old Africa hands. Like every other enclave housing foreigners and wealthy locals in Nairobi, a guarded gate surrounded the property. Inside, everything was elegant, wood-paneled, flowered, and clean, with a bar and several restaurants and even a pool under construction. Outside, until the last days of my stay, I saw the city only from behind glass as my driver, Joseph Maiyo, and I shuttled to various appointments across a sea of human poverty. I was told not to walk the streets of the neighborhood alone, my white face announcing dollars in my pocket to the thousands of residents drawn to the city, desperately searching for their next meal. At the end, to say my good-byes, I asked a young Kenyan visual artist, who had joined me for lunch at the hotel, if he would do me the honor of walking me around the block.

The Fairview was located directly across the street from the Israeli embassy, a building surrounded by fences, barbed wire, surveillance cameras, and armed guards. While we drove past that military fortress several times every day, the American embassy was nowhere to be found. It was being rebuilt, after the infamous bombing in 1998, several miles outside Nairobi proper — purposely far from the constant foot traffic that carries Nairobi's people from place to place. Even the trails of human beings that one sees leading into and out of the city could barely reach this new location, now also fortified into a virtual military base. In place of the old embassy downtown, a park has been built. How lovely, I thought, until I discovered that it was locked and that Nairobi citizens are charged 25 Kenyan shillings to enter and sit under the shade of a precious American tree — 25 shillings in a country where $1 a day is fine wages and millions of people starve in the Kibera slums.

Each day I would order the “lunch box” option from my hotel and set it up as a communal snack box for the rest of the group. The soon famous “lunch boxie” (always nice to place a vowel at the end of an English word to give it the Swahili lilt) contained a protein-rich feast: fried chicken, an egg, cheese sandwiches, fruit, crackers, juice, cookies, and a chocolate bar. Over the weeks, my colleagues developed an unnamed ritual for parceling out each item. Silently it was determined who would take the egg, who the chicken, who the chocolate. The Muzungu (European/white person) food was apparently shared among all.

The space for our workshop was very good by Nairobi Standards — an abandoned private school near Daniel Arap Moi's presidential palace. The old cracked swimming pool was now home to thick algae, fish, and frogs. The floor of the auditorium where we chose to work was built out of good dark wood, dangerous only in the few spots where tropical rains had poured through the roof. But the toilets flushed. The lights turned on. I discovered that few performing spaces of better quality could be found anywhere in the city.

There were several: The French Cultural Center, located in downtown Nairobi, was where we went regularly to see performances, work in pleasant rehearsal rooms, get French-language books from the library, drink good coffee, sit in the secluded shady garden, meet each other, find a quiet respite from the noise and dirt on the streets — all of this provided gratis to anyone who entered. The British Cultural Center, also downtown, had, among other things, screening rooms for training Kenyans on how to write soap operas for the UN — also free. The German Cultural Center/Goethe Institute, around the corner, was not as well equipped with rehearsal or performance spaces. But its facilities could still be engaged, and it offered classes and an interesting film series at night for free.

“Where is the American Cultural Center?” I asked innocently. Long gone, was the answer. “They used to have a free library, but now they've moved out of the city center off the bus routes, and they charge for use.” My colleagues politely noted these changes without additional comment.

Our group communicated through two common languages, English and Swahili. The Ugandans, Kenyans, and I used English, and the Tanzanians and Kenyans used Swahili (Kiswahili). The individual participants represented over ten mother tongues or tribal languages.

How did we communicate? We found ways. Physical action was essential. Songs spoke to us even when we didn't understand the words. Similarly, characters and narratives seemed to express themselves beyond language. We began to play with different languages and discovered, in improvisation, new ways to speak. If the need was strong enough, someone in the group could always translate thoughts that begged more nuance and complexity.

We spent our days in a kind of dream. They, because they had never before been given the opportunity to do nothing but be creative for four weeks, living in pleasant surroundings, working in quiet and peace, and receiving generous per diems. I, because I was Alice in Wonderland, surrounded by a sensory collage, a social vibrancy and human connection of an abundance and intensity far beyond my expectation.

My colleagues, I thought, were like desert plants starved for water. Every book I brought with me, every videotape and CD, every kind word, every cup of tea, every day we could spend together allowed us to experience the exhilaration and engagement of theatrical collaboration. I often thought of southern California's Anza-Borrego desert — barren until the spring rains ignite a profusion of yellow and scarlet wildflowers bursting out of prickly pear and beaver tail cactus.

They spoke of the rare privilege of working with each other. It was harder for a Kenyan to arrange to work with a Ugandan than with a European. Travel between the three East African countries is dangerous, difficult, and expensive. They longed to discover the similarities and differences, not with America and Europe but rather among themselves — subtleties that I could barely perceive but that bespoke thousands of years of shared history. As I came to understand, East Africa is a universe unto itself, with a past and a culture as dense and as rich as any. The notion of expressing an East African aesthetic and identity became the central focus of the project.

The daily exercises eventually evolved toward a “presentation,” which we were asked to share at the Bagamoyo Arts College annual festival. Bagamoyo is a small Muslim village on the coast of Tanzania, just across the Indian Ocean from more famous Zanzibar. But Bagamoyo has an infamy of its own. In its tragic history, it was the center of the Arabic slave trade out of East Africa, and later Germans arrived to take over, building forts, still standing, for continuing slaving. The broad white beaches bordering a turquoise sea, although exquisite, carry echoes of dark times. During Tanzania's socialist period, Bagamoyo became home to an arts college supported by the People's Republic of China. The first public performances took place under the mango trees in a grove that still stands on the grounds. Later, the Swedish government built the performing arts facility that held 1,000 people a night on one side and sheltered 500 people from the midday sun for indoor performances on the other. (Sadly, I've been told that the year after our presentation, the festival was forced to perform once again under the mango trees, since a fire destroyed the thatched roof of the theater.)

At festival time, it seemed as if the entire town of Bagamoyo showed up in their finery. Over a thousand barefoot and sandaled Muslim villagers, wrapped in colorful fabric, carrying home-cooked dinners, young and old, male and female, were crammed into every crevice of the concrete amphitheater. Over four days, they sat for five or six bum-numbing hours (sunset to midnight) as performers from all over Tanzania (and beyond) sang, danced, and enacted in an ever changing variety show: Boos alternated with cheers as the work ranged from clumsy amateur troupes to chanted Swahili poetry, from European-trained dance companies to an acrobatic percussion group from a Burundi refuge camp. Thankfully, our presentation rated one of the more rousing responses, just as the workshop participants had assured me it would.

Seeing the presence of so many other nations actively involved in providing support to the East Africans, I kept asking myself where exactly my fellow countrymen were hiding. Where was America in the midst of all this diversity? Yes, we were there in recognizable businesses and pharmaceuticals and Coca-Cola and fancy hotels and, of course, in expensive safari trips. We were there in Starbucks coffee beans bought at agonizingly cheap rates from the coffee farmers, who cannot partake in leveraging the price since the Kenyan government controls all the processing. We were there in privileged jobs and elegant restaurants and fabulous house compounds in exclusive neighborhoods on the way to the International (American) School.

One day earlier in the workshop, in preparation for our upcoming presentation in Tanzania, our group caravaned out from our home base in central Nairobi, deep into the suburbs, past the gated armed guards protecting sprawling tropical gardens on quiet landscaped streets, and down the bumpy country road that lead to the International School of Kenya. We'd been invited to perform our piece for the American and international students. Although I'd been advised by a workshop member whose husband taught drama at the school, I was not prepared for the quality of the facility we found: a brand-new performing arts complex; shiny wooden floors; comfortable seats; air-conditioning; hundreds of lighting instruments; up-to-date sound equipment. We did a brief warm-up with the students, and then the actors gave a fine performance, and the passionate, curious, and sympathetic young people rose for a standing ovation. Most of the Africans had never seen a theater space like this, let alone performed in one. The National Theatre of Kenya, which seats 700 people in broken chairs surrounded by ravaged walls and a torn curtain, has five stage lights. And yet this world-class performance space, for the benefit of “international” high school students, was only a thirty-five-minute drive from downtown Nairobi.

As we gathered in the parking lot afterward, preparing to drive back to our dilapidated old school grounds, we said nothing about the obvious discrepancy: It seemed from their silence on the matter that such a thing was to be expected. Americans are known to take care of their own.

I found that America is not “on the ground” in East Africa. In fact, we are seldom to be seen at all, and when we are viewed, it's in “dumped” television programming, donated clothing resold on the streets, and violent action films. Or East Africans hear about our latest military adventure on BBC World News. And they know we've been propping up their corrupt governments. How long was Daniel Arap Moi protected by American and international business?

Toward the end of my stay, Joseph, my driver and impromptu Swahili teacher, picked me up as usual at the Hillcrest School to take me back to the hotel. Joseph had taught me to count in Swahili from one to ten with the tenderness that he must have used with his own children. As I got into the car, he said quietly, “a bad thing has happened in your country” I saw him look back at me through the rearview mirror. We both sat very still. He could not find any words. He started the car and turned on the radio, tuning in to the BBC, and I heard the reporter describing explosions as airplanes flew into the World Trade Center. The rest of our journey was traveled in the silence.

Dropping me off at the Fairview, Joseph, usually so robust and sociable, seemed to sag into his seat. I walked into the lobby and saw that someone had moved a large TV set into one of the meeting areas. I joined people from all over the world, black and white, who sat quietly watching the BBC World News. We were shown footage of the towers falling, the people running, the people jumping. Several of the hotel workers whom I had come to know during my weeks in residence came up to me to say, “So sorry.” I thought of the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi, 200 Kenyans killed along with 12 Americans. Of course, they understood. I ordered food and went to my room to continue watching the news. I called my husband in Los Angeles and futilely tried to plan tomorrow's rehearsal.

Africans are a stoic people. They suffer immeasurably and carry their suffering with silent dignity. I was not so sure I was the same.

The next morning, I arrived at the school early. As each participant arrived, they walked over to me and shook my hand to greet me. They each looked me in the eye and said, “I'm so sorry what has happened in your country.”

“Thank you,” I said. And I wondered about their political beliefs. I wondered about the suffering they had personally seen. I had heard their stories about Idi Amin, political exile, death threats, imprisonment, disease, and hunger. Could I be as brave as they had already shown themselves to be?

Once we were convened, we gathered in a circle and took each other's hands. I put on our warm-up CD — joyous African music — and we danced.

After the success of the East African Theatre Workshop, our sponsoring organization, the Center for International Theatre Development (based in Baltimore, Maryland), organized a second phase. In May 2002, a workshop had already been scheduled for graduate students at Towson University and young theater students at Warsaw's historic Akademia Teatralna im Aleksandra Zelwerowicza w Warszawie (Warsaw Theater Academy). Philip Arnoult, the center director, invited me to lead the workshop and bring along three of the younger East African participants. We would form The Three Continents Workshop, working first at Towson in the United States and then traveling together to Poland for further work and a final presentation at the academy's first International Student Theatre Festival.

A surprising roadblock appeared when the U.S. embassy in Uganda denied a visa for one of the African workshop participants. I soon learned that the current U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service position is to summarily reject all visa applications from certain countries unless the petitioner can demonstrate family, financial, or job-related motivation to return to his or her home country. U.S. embassies regularly refuse applications by artists who are not married, do not have children, big bank accounts, or full-time jobs. In that spirit of hospitality and in spite of letters of support from the Ford Foundation East Africa Office, our Ugandan participant was refused three times. We soon found ourselves in a pitch battle. It was only after appeals from my congressman's office, a personal letter to the U.S. ambassador to Uganda, and my threat to file a grievance with the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs that the embassy in Kampala reversed its decision.

Visas in hand, the Africans and Poles arrived safely at BWI Airport, and we held our first meeting gathered around a world map taped to a blackboard in the Studio Theatre at Towson University. In spite of linguistic obstacles, once together, we did manage to engage productively with one another, carefully trudging though various unexpected cultural differences. The Africans explored the mysteries of the thermostat and garbage disposal in the modern American apartments where we were housed in Maryland. The Poles got the firsthand experience of being white faces in an urban African American slum when they took an innocent walking tour of South Baltimore.

Swahili, Polish, and English were all spoken daily but not with any shared proficiency. So, at least within the workshop, we turned to physical, musical, and nonverbal conversation. Our Africanized renditions of Polish children's songs and Anglo-Saxon romantic ballads led us into hours of spontaneous singing and dancing. Eventually improvisations formed into narratives.

We all learned to do African tribal dances, then Polish-style ballet, and finally, an American kick-line, but we were unable to arrive at a common theme around which to build our Three Continents presentation — not nationalism, or love, or ecology, or globalization, or family. Each group seemed to feel and think too specifically about each of those topics. We ended up building three short stories that seemed to revolve around notions of death, loss, and identity, told from three points of view and in three distinct styles. The African story involved sickness, death, the UN, government corruption, and the unfair distribution of funds. The Polish story was based on the legend of Princess Wanda, who committed suicide rather than marry a German prince and lose her national identity It was told with subtle grace and a profound sense of history. The American story was abstract, cool, ironic, and alienated as it appropriated images from the first two stories and reassembled them, ending with the two young students staring blankly at a television set.

These stories incorporated the other cultures, at the will of the creators. That is, the Africans used a Polish Grotowski exercise for one sequence and incorporated the Robert Wilsonesque slow-motion walk that we had seen in a performance of Eugene Onegin at the Warsaw Opera. The Poles asked the Ugandan to sing one of her Banyankole children's songs to mark Wanda's retreat to the comfort of an old woman in the forest.

The American students' story dealt with the struggle for connection, an experience most Americans recognize — an attempt to relate to foreigners, which is fraught with guilt, fear, and even self-pity. Ironically, the same students who created this piece seemed to cling to each other during breaks and after rehearsals. They would generally go off to eat without asking fellow workshop participants to join them. Surrounded by people who were grateful for every given opportunity, I saw the Americans pick and choose their outside experiences, conveniently missing several that didn't spark their curiosity.

At the same time, they would enter passionately into rehearsal discussions, pouring out a wellspring of self-criticism, eager to castigate the American way of life as the perpetrator of vast global crimes. They readily acknowledged the suffering America has caused. They bemoaned their terrible sense of isolation.

The contradictory and conflicted behavior I was observing reminded me of my own inner struggles. Having grown up in an upper-middle-class Southern California suburb, I experienced enormous anxiety the first time I ventured outside my comfort zone. The angst of my young American students was all too understandable, and as the weeks progressed, I looked for opportunities to speak to them privately. Finally, confronting them one afternoon, I said, “This isolation and helplessness you feel, is it real? Who and what do you fear? The people in this workshop feel enormous affection and curiosity toward you. They are waiting for you to offer your hand.”

On that day, the American participants were quiet, but the next morning they joined the other students for the hotel breakfast in Warsaw.

What were they afraid of?

Perhaps the same things we all are. We fear that we will not be comfortable — physically, mentally, and emotionally. We fear that our daily American lives, with antibacterial soaps, prescription medications, washable wool blankets, frozen waffles, new Nikes, and café lattés, will evaporate upon arrival in these strange places. We fear being shown our ignorance and feeling stupid. We fear defending our privileges on the basis of anything but luck. We come to believe that we can no longer explore new territory. So we stay home, where we are safe — and that fills us with unbearable loneliness. So we try to venture out. But even when we travel, we work hard to keep our comfortable cocoon intact.

Globalization is not only a business concept. Globalization is a cultural concept. We can't just send our money, our politicians, or our machines. We have to send our bodies, our selves.

I have no doubt that millions of Americans want to help make this world safer and better through means other than guns, soldiers, and tanks. To do so, other cultures must be allowed — encouraged — to speak, and we must be able to listen. Let us become a people who are unafraid to learn from others how to view a world that is different from our own.

On September 11, 2003, I silently commemorated the World Trade Center bombings by standing onstage as one of twelve honorees at the closing ceremony for the Fifteenth Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. The Festival showcased over sixty productions from over forty European, Asian, African, and Arabic countries. In attendance were hundreds of artists from all over the globe, as well as several Americans. One was on the selection committee, one served on the jury, another presented a paper. There were three young Americans writing for various theater journals and one San Francisco theater director whose company specializes in work dealing with the Middle East. No American artists or companies performed.

I stood onstage on a day in which Cairo's 18 million people went about their business seemingly without noticing the anniversary of September 11. They certainly didn't speak of it onstage. Instead, we celebrated the efforts of artists from Palestine, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Oman, England, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Rwanda, Cameroon, the Sudan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Cyprus, and, of course, Egypt. Karma, the evening's culminating performance, was a stunning dance theater piece by young artists from South Korea. Its exquisite execution and notable life-affirming themes of hope and continuity won Best Production and brought us all to our feet cheering.

As the names of the first honorees were read, artists from France, Scotland, Italy, and Spain, one by one, climbed the stairs onto the stage. This was the moment I had imagined in fearful daydreams — me, an American Jew in Cairo on September 11, standing alone in front of hundreds of strangers whose plays clearly exposed the dense fervid rage, hurt, and isolated madness now awake in the world. Then my name was called, and I heard applause as I started up the stairs, applause that continued as I was given a medallion inscribed in Arabic and featuring the ancient Egyptian god Toth, god of wisdom and learning, as I was warmly greeted by the Egyptian minister of culture and the president of the festival, as I crossed the stage and looked straight out at the assembled audience for the requisite photo, and as I returned to my seat next to my distinguished fellow honoree, Shakib Khoury, from the Lebanese American University in Beirut. In the audience was Gichora Mwangi, who now runs the Arts Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, and helped organize that first East African Theatre Workshop two years before.

On September 11, 2001, my people had been attacked, and I had been surrounded by the compassion of my African friends and colleagues, who taught me that in Africa when a member of a village is in mourning, the whole village cries. On September 11, 2003, I felt conspicuously alone. But I learned that I was welcome and that my presence was no mistake.

I had been afraid, but my colleagues were only waiting for me to reach out my hand. They caught my fear in their open arms.