Doreen Baingana on The Tropical Fish Play

Tebere Arts Foundation will, through the month of October, be showing the Tropical Fish play (virtually). Tropical Fish is an adaptation from award winning writer Doreen Baingana’s 2002 title story collection Tropical Fish. I am going to be running a series of episodes to talk about this play. In this episode I talk to Doreen to tell us what this means for her.

The afternoon is fading and the evening is drawing nigh, we are sitting at Muti cafe in Entebbe and the birds are winding up their day’s work in song and laughter. It’s like they are out collecting firewood for the night’s bonfire or like children at the well fetching the last round of water to take home.  Muti is a quiet place hidden in green canopies and green foliage not far away from Doreen’s childhood home, a detail I had no idea of when I suggested the venue. It is one of those days when there are very few people. The idea of meeting outdoors is still in its trial and error version post lockdown. But luckily for me Doreen Baingana is willing to meet here of course while we observe the SOPs.  Today the conversation is about the up and coming project of the Tropical Fish play, an adaptation of the title short story of Tropical Fish, a headline story of the Tropical Fish short story collection.

2003 started it all

The year was 2003 when the Tropical Fish, stories out of Entebbe short story collection won the manuscript award. Two years later in 2005 it was released. It was Doreen’s MFA creative writing project which hit the road running with a big bang. Something fundamental had happened in her life. The years before when she still lived in Italy, the law graduate had decided to pursue writing as a full time career. Later she would move to Washington DC for among other reasons take on the MFA in creative writing. And that was the outcome.

Then 2016 happened

The first adaptation of the Tropical Fish story was featured at the Writivism Festival as a work-in-progress. Rehema Nanfuka had taken up the story and translated it into a stage play. The play was given a welcome gesture. In that audience was Asiimwe Deborah Kawe, the director of the Kampala International Theatre Festival and Tebere Arts Foundation.  The play made more rounds gracing different stages. It was at Goethe Zentrum and Kardamom and Koffee. While at Kardamom, in audience was renowned film director, Mira Nair. She advised Doreen to make a full adaptation of the play. She listened and acted upon the advice.

“‘You need to do it well,’ she said. I knew nothing about script writing at the time. In 2020, I joined the Tebere writing residence to learn script writing. I wanted to adapt the story into a play.”

Unlike the fiction which she was used to, script was wide. It was not a one person show. In fiction, writing is the end of the process.  In theatre, the script marks the beginning of the process.  This was new. It has been a journey of unlearning, letting go and relearning. Most importantly though has been the idea of letting the story grow its own wings and watch it fly away from her hands- with gladness. It was at the residency that she landed in the safe hands of Samuel and Esteri Tebandeke. Esteri as the main actor and Samuel as the director.

On stage in 2021

And now that the play has been fully adapted, it will take to the stage.

“The cast has made the story richer than what I had thought of. It’s good to see Tropical Fish in a different lens. A new concept. A new perspective. Stage is always about the now. This is a different exploration,” observes Doreen. On board is Esteri as the lead actor. It is directed by Mshai Mwangola from Kenya, and co-directed by Sarah Nansubuga.

Doreen talks of this play with untold joy. “How do you make something into something else!” she wonders as she makes another scoop from the ice cream bowl. “What was just a short story has grown to become a full play of its own. A new concept. A new perspective. No one asks you in a short story why the story is happening at the time it is happening. The question of “why now?” creates a different kind of exploration. And writing is an exploration.”

So far she has had her hand on two other plays, Hills of Salt and Sugar and Questions of Home.

She looks forward to another opportunity to write especially Hills of Salt and Sugar further for stage adaptation. She needs to be pushed to write for stage, an occasion she longs for.  

“Deborah and her team have provided emerging artistes an opportunity to grow their craft. They are nurturing the next generation. Working in the covid period hasn’t been easy. Theatre isn’t easy. The collaboration of all these creative people together is what I long to see.”

And as we are winding up our conversation, she tells me; “This is happening on stage. There is liberty in knowing that there are different creative people involved. You can’t know the thrill out of a work of art until you have watched it on stage.”

Follow #TropicalFish for more updates.

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