He is a multi-talented Ugandan artist, about to bring his first major work to a London stage.. Kalungi Ssébandeke arrived in the UK from Kampala at the age of 10, fell in love with the arts and quickly established himself as ‘one to watch’. As a playwright, his first offering Assata Taught Me premiered at the Gate Theater in London (2017). Since then he has won a series of prestigious arts awards, including Bush Theatre’s Passing The Baton (2018), the Roland Rees Fellowship (2020) and the prestigious JMK Prize 2023. Interview by Juanne H. Fuller.
First of all, congratulations! How excited are you to work on this project?
Very, very excited! I always dreamed of being at the helm of a play as a director. I feel like I’ve worked to get to this moment through my acting, my writing, and even, to some extent, my music-making. Bringing together all these different visions.
The play you are currently directing, “Meetings” by Mustapha Mutura, is set in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1980s. As director, how did you prepare for this production?
From the beginning, I really felt like I needed to research the country – I needed to be there. Yes, as a writer, director or actor you can use your imagination, but nothing beats being there! Now, it’s true that this play takes place in the 80s, long before I was born (he laughs). I couldn’t go back in time, but what I could do was travel, talk and listen to the locals, and just get a feel for the island. This meant that when it came to visualizing certain aspects of the room, I could see the people being talked about. When they mentioned George Street or Port of Spain, I could imagine what it would have looked like back then. Additionally, having actress Martina Laird (who grew up in T&T) on board, as well as our cultural consultant Jim Findley, was a blessing. They were both a valuable source of knowledge.
What did your additional research reveal?
Trinidad and Tobago, as twin islands, is very important in Caribbean history – also in American history. Famously, T&T-born civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, coined the term “Black Power” while serving on the Student Nonviolent Committee in the United States. He had then been with the group since returning to Trinidad because it was at a time when Trinidad itself was experiencing its own “Black Power” awakening, so they didn’t want any extra fire! So you have so much history coming from this relatively small island, and for me, that’s one of the reasons why I chose this piece. I felt like I wanted to dive deeper into it.
At the heart of the play are a married couple who want very different things in life. It’s sometimes very funny, but also very poignant and political. As a director, how difficult was it to balance comedy and politics?
It’s a big challenge, but I think we accomplished it by going back to basics and understanding what the characters want. We have the impression that the comedy comes from the truth. Once we find out the truth, things will naturally become funny. We’re not actively trying to ‘act out’, the characters just happen to experience these things and are very passionate about it.
The play also explores identity and belonging – questions that will resonate with your own migration story. You came to the UK when you were 10 years old. How did you leave everything you knew in Uganda?
To be honest with you, I saw it as a good thing because it was an opportunity to rejoin the rest of my family. I had spent the first 10 years of my life with my aunt, uncle and cousins. My parents, brothers and sisters were all here in the UK. I didn’t see many British films growing up – I knew very little about the UK, but London in particular had been touted as an incredible place. I remember kids playing jokes at school in Uganda.
Someone was saying “let me have some,” but the way they were pronouncing “some” sounded like the name “Sam.” So they would say “let me have Sam” and someone would say “Sam lives in London”!! (we both laugh) And that’s my father’s name. I was like, how do they know my dad lives in London (more laughter)?!! It was always a joke, as kids we wanted to be in London, the UK or the US. We used to do role-playing games where we were in movies and on TV and using a crazy American accent. So packing up my things and moving to the UK was exciting. Of course, over the years (as an adult) it’s become a little more nuanced. It’s not just “milk and honey”.
What was your first memory of the UK?
It’s funny, one of the first things I remember doing when I walked into our south London flat was surfing the (TV) channels and finding Sky Movies. And I was like: there’s a whole channel JUST for movies?! Back home I used to watch a VHS video – in fact the first film I watched in Uganda was Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and it was dubbed! Back then we had VJs (video jockeys) who basically described the film on audio. So, something would happen, and they would describe it in Luganda (usually in a funny way that made the audience laugh). So, realizing that there was an entire channel dedicated to movies was awesome!
I think about your education. Starting a new school anywhere and at any time can be intimidating. But in a new country, with a different accent, it may be even more difficult. How was it for you?
You hit the nail on the head. It was hard. I started in time for the new term, but I was 10 and it was the last year of primary school. To be honest, kids made fun of my accent, even until the end of high school. It was difficult because, you know, coming from Uganda, I had just left one of the best schools in the country and I was pretty academic. My mother praised me for this and used me as an example for my siblings! And then I came here to the UK, and I think people thought I wasn’t smart.
I have a deep memory of us working in small groups and a teacher asking, “where do potatoes traditionally come from”? I said Ireland. And immediately someone said that couldn’t be it. Granted, that’s not the right answer, but the reason I was so confident was because in Uganda we called them Irish potatoes. But it was just a rejection of everything I had said. When I entered high school, I excelled in languages. My aunt in Uganda was a French teacher, so I already knew a few things and ended up taking my French GCSEs early. I also learned Japanese and did so at GCSE. level. But looking at other subjects, I think I was placed in lower groups because it was thought that I probably wasn’t very good, and I eventually started to stick to them.
What is your relationship with Uganda now? Do you go back there often?
In fact, I do. I try to go back at least once a year. The last time I was there was in April and I love it! I love Uganda. Of course, no country is perfect, including the UK and the US.
Uganda certainly has its imperfections and its problems, but as a country and a people, we persevere – as many African countries have persevered. And our people, both in Uganda and in the diaspora, are finding ways to thrive despite the challenges they face.
Do you have ambitions to one day work in the arts in Uganda?
Yes please! (Laughs). My dream would be to create a performing arts school or project, in which I would contribute to the creative industries. I would love to be at the helm of training the future generation of Ugandan actors, writers, directors and stage managers. You know, take all the good things I’ve learned here in the UK and put them into the Ugandan context. I’m making contacts. There’s a big theater called Yenze Theater Conservatory, and I’m in conversation with the artistic director about how we could possibly work together in the future. There are so many talented creatives in Uganda working to build our creative industry and I would love to be one of them.
There has been a sea change in your industry in 2020, or certainly a wave of optimism that things would be radically different for black creatives in Britain. Do you think there has been a lasting change?
If I’m honest, I think a lot of things happened that felt like knee-jerk reactions. Some things have persisted, others have disappeared. The proof is the rapid turnover of non-white artistic directors in the UK since 2020. It’s really sad.
One positive thing that came out of this period for me personally was that this is when my directing started to take shape. I went from writing to directing, and it’s something that has snowballed and hopefully lasted for a long time. I also built great relationships with different theaters.
You are a screenwriter/actor/director. Do you think it is important to be multidisciplinary in this industry?
Absolutely, it’s so important. Otherwise, you won’t work, you won’t eat, you won’t survive! I think some of my favorite creatives, like Michaela Coel and Kane Robinson (AKA Kano), prove that you can do this: you can do multiple things. For some of us, this is a necessity.
What does your dream job look like, Kalungi?
Ooooo!! (Laughs) My dream job is like writing, directing and starring in my own show. I would also like to direct a play in which I also perform. I want to challenge myself and do creative things that people say shouldn’t be done. I think I’m working on it, actually.
‘Meetings begin at the Orange Tree Theater in southwest London on October 18 and run until November 11.