25 years ago, a class of literature students at Kampala High School was faced with a tough hurdle to leap. One of their set texts was Wole Soyinka's play, The Road. As is Soyinka's literary tradition, this was no simple play.
"The play was so complicated and hard to understand. In order for us to pass our exams, we decided, as a class, to act the play so as to memorise the scenes and lines," says Charles Ssenkubuge, Bakayimbira dramactors' director who was one of the students then. The play was well received; the students were credited for their talent, hitherto unknown to them, and were challenged not to suffocate it.
What begun as 'Operation Conquer Soyinka' was to produce one of the leading drama groups in Uganda many years later. Such is the gravel upon which Bakayimbira dramactors is founded. Following the play's success, one class member, Aloysius Matovu, already a performing student with Kampala dramactors, dragged his friends Andrew Benon Kibuuka and Charles Ssenkubuge to the group.
They featured in a highly political play Kateete Omumpembe written by David Rayson Kateete. "The play was criticising the day's regime. NASA, the security agency then, began hunting for Kateete. Fearing for his life, he ran into exile," explains Ssenkubuge. They decided to continue but differently altogether. "There was a sequel to Kateete Omumpembe called Kateete Omumbale but we could not dare act it," adds Ssenkubuge. Benon Kibuuka scripted the group's first play, Ebibala bya Nantongo, exploring family life, love and careless housewives.
The group attained its name from the audiences that watched their first productions. "We always opened our plays with traditional musical performances and people usually commented how we were great singers. They would say, e, bano bakayimbira, and we picked it," explained Ssenkubuge about the group's name.
They have not suffocated their ability. On top of composing songs that accompany their plays, they have helped many artistes like Chance Nalubega and Harriet Kisakye find their feet in music.
Though the play was well received, the young S.5 boys were never taken serious. They were denied access to use the National Theatre. "We were young, imagine S.5 boys as directors of a drama group. The only thing that saved us was the vision we had," explains Ssenkubuge. But even after securing access to the theatre, thanks to the efforts of Rev.
Kefa Sempangi, their first patron, their naivety showed. Ssenkubuge says they did not know what to do. They feared staging their play and spent the first three days doing musical presentations and the old play, Kateete Omumpembe. "On the last day, we decided to try out our play. We were overwhelmed. Everyone was asking why we could save such best for last," said Ssenkubuge.
This was a great boost to the group, but their first major breakthrough came during the national drama festival in 1981 when Matovu and Kibuuka wrote a play, Olusozi Lwabatulege, which emerged the festival's best overall.
But the play they consider their first blockbuster and which confirmed them on the theatre scene, came later on. "I invited Matovu at home and while there, he saw my incomplete script of Agali Amakula, lying on the table and he grabbed it. I tried to stop him from taking it in vain.
The next day, he ordered that rehearsals begin, saying we could not sit on such a script," narrates Ssenkubuge. He says the play sold greatly. The first show in Mityana left everyone crying. Word moved round so fast and soon, the National Theatre was looking for them to stage the play there. "This was a good moment. Tickets sold out by 9a.m. Monday morning for a show that was slated for the weekend," says Ssenkubuge.
However, the group's best ever play to date, Ndiwulira, came in 1991. With Uganda grappling with the Aids scourge, the group crafted the play that got every Aids activist spellbound. The play was staged everywhere including president Museveni's home in Rwakitura. Bakayimbira's plays do not have a specific run time but this was staged for a record two years.
Whilst the political theme seems dominant in their plays, Ssenkubuge says they handle issues of the day that their audience can easily understand and relate to. The group has staged 52 plays in total with two of their plays, Olusozi Lwabatulege and Omunaala becoming set books on the literature in Luganda syllabus. Last year, it was voted the best drama group in a public opinion poll and Charles Ssenkubuge was voted third best actor.
But while the group has enjoyed success, it has had its fair share of struggles and challenges. Ssenkubuge says once, they advertised for a play in Niita Cinema, currently Kampala Pentecostal Church, and only one person came; Kibuuka's father.
Another time, in the 1980's, their play Enseke Z'enganda pulled a full house on Idd Day in Nateete. Thinking they had cut a niche there, they went back three weeks later as a means of maintaining their audience. Kibuuka had even invited his girlfriend (current wife) to watch him act. She was the only person present. She was even the one who transported them back home.
The plays Balikyewunya and Bukedde Banyanike attest to their financial struggles. "These plays were about the high debts we were going through, being threatened with prison every time. We almost gave up but most people thought we were depicting the censured ministers," says Ssenkubuge. These plays are highly treasured because they rescued the group from all debt and helped them remain at their current home, Pride Theatre.
Ssenkubuge says they have faced their struggles and challenges with unusual tenacity and solidarity and they credit their survival to these two elements. Bakayimbira have already stuffed 25 years in their quiver but they are not bowing out as yet.
"We have built an image of theatre and helped transform it into a respected field. It is no longer a field of failures. People have left and joined parliament for example. There is still negative reference to the profession though. People say, "there was free drama," "don't bring your drama here," "take your drama away," without knowing, they are abusing our profession. But this will change," says Ssenkubuge.
They now have their eyes on the future, to set a new legacy that will preserve the group's name forever. This legacy, Ssenkubuge says, includes a cultural/tourist centre showcasing acts of African traditions that people have grown knowing about but have never seen in real life. This legacy will be unveiled today as they celebrate their silver jubilee at Pride Theatre.