A Story of the World: IPRF Festival Concludes with a Panel Discussion

Emily Johnson
November 08, 2021

The fourth annual International Play Reading Festival—a festival co-founded by Dean Carol Becker and Associate Professor David Henry Hwang, Theatre—was held last month, presenting readings of three plays by living international playwrights.

This year, readings of the festival’s three plays were made available as podcasts, as well as through listening parties hosted on Zoom. On Saturday, October 23, 2021, the festival concluded with a panel discussion during which the playwrights joined Hwang to talk about process, mindset, and their experiences producing theatre for a listening audience.

Hwang identified the themes that emerged across this cohort: migration, autobiography, colonization, deconstruction of narrative, unreliability of perspective. 

Asiimwe Deborah Kawe’s play Appointment with gOD takes place in a US embassy in an unnamed country, where visa applicants await the decisions that will determine their ability to travel, and is based largely on her own experiences. In Nick Makoha’s The Dark, set in 1978, a mother and son prepare to flee Idi Amin’s Uganda. And in This is not a memorized script, this is a well-rehearsed story by Dima Mikhayel Matta, a performer explores queerness, storytelling, and their relationship with Beirut.

Each playwright discussed the journey their work has taken, from inception to workshops and production. It was evident how personal these stories are to their creators. 

Nick Makoha related how his mother, who was studying in the UK in 1979, returned to Uganda to take him out of a country that was about to be engulfed in civil war. Much of The Dark arose from conversations with his mother, and a desire to look closely at the stories of African women.

“I wanted to see the different states of darkness that we can exist in,” Makoha said, “the darkness of the spirit, the darkness of the times...what darkness befalls paradise, because Uganda is a paradise, but we have many stories that are counter to that paradise.”

Kawe began work on Appointment with gOD after her experiences in a US embassy in Kampala as a student, where the tense atmosphere and dehumanizing treatment of the applicants made a deep impression. “But what truly stuck with me,” she described, “was how the whole process felt like a performance, was very theatrical.”

In an astonishingly ironic twist, Kawe recounted how she herself was denied a visa to visit the US to participate in a workshop of Appointment with gOD in 2014, though she had lived in the US for ten years previously, and was now based in Uganda. She was only able to join the cast virtually.

Dima Mikhayel Matta had never seen queer women or nonbinary characters represented in theatre in their native Beirut, and decided to take matters into their own hands. Having completed an MFA in fiction, they had returned to theatre and acting when in 2018, in the process of preparing for a storytelling event, they instead wrote the first three pages of a play. This is not a memorized script, this is a well-rehearsed story is the first play they’ve written.

“I wrote it as a story, because this is how I’m trained, as a storyteller,” Matta explained, “and it just felt natural to me to tell it the way I would tell it to my friends.”

The virtual nature of the festival this year has both opened up the readings to a truly international audience, and also required some reconceptualizing of the plays for an audio-only format. 

Certain details took on enhanced significance. “It’s really important when doing a Ugandan play, East African plays, getting the accents right,” Nick Makoha described, “A lot of times, accents can move into a kind of generic African accent, but there’s actually a nuance.” 

Losing the visual element also afforded unintended layers of meaning, as Makoha went on: “Part of the magic of my play is that I want you to be in the dark, I want you to imagine for yourself what is out there.”

For Matta, the fact that This is not a memorized script was already a one-person play made some aspects easier, but it was in performing their piece to be recorded that they encountered some difficulty. 

“It’s made for an audience. I talk to people throughout the whole thing, there’s no other characters, just me and the audience, they’re very much a part of the play,” Matta admitted. But there were advantages to recording: “I realized that it replicates the intimacy very well, it’s just my voice talking to whoever’s listening...that kind of manifesting really paid off.”

As the event concluded, the panelists answered one last question from the audience: As an artist who works internationally, what do you consider to be your home?

For Kawe, Kampala, where she now lives, is home for now: “Wherever I’m doing art and I’m connected with a community of artists, for me, that is home.” 

Matta agreed with Nick Makoha when he said, “Home is where you’re welcome.” But they also wondered frankly whether US playwrights touring internationally would be asked the same question. 

It is a query that cuts to the heart of the themes Hwang observed in the cohort at the beginning of the evening; migration, living legacies of colonization, and even the unreliability of perspective.

Each of the artists commented on the safe, professional, welcoming environment that Hwang and the festival provided. Of his experience in the festival, Makoha concluded, “I like to be able to see it through other people’s eyes...I think that’s what a quality of a good story is, is that it can be retold, and it no longer becomes your story, it becomes a story of the world.”