He’s a multi-talented Ugandan artist, about to direct his first major work on a London stage. Kalungi Ssebandeke came to the UK from Kampala at the age of 10, fell in love with the arts, and has quickly established himself as ‘one to watch’. As a playwright, his debut offering Assata Taught Me premiered at London’s Gate Theatre (2017). Since then, he has won a string of prestigious arts awards, including the Bush Theatre’s Passing The Baton (2018), the Roland Rees Bursary (2020), and the prestigious 2023 JMK Award. Interview by Juanne H Fuller.
First of all, congratulations! How excited are you to be working on this project?
Very, very excited! It’s always been my dream to be at the helm of a play as a director. I feel that I’ve been working towards this moment through my acting, writing, and even to a certain degree, my music making. Bringing together all these different visions.
The play you’re currently directing, Mustapha Mutura’s ‘Meetings’, is set in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1980’s. As a director, how did you prepare for this production?
From the beginning I definitely felt 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 actually being there! Now, granted this play is set in the 80’s, so long before I was born [he laughs]. I couldn’t go back in time, but what I could do was travel around, speak, and listen to the locals, and just get a vibe of the island. This meant that when it came to visualising certain aspects in the play, I could see the people that were being spoken about. When they mentioned George Street or Port of Spain, I could imagine what it would have looked like back then. Also, having both actor Martina Laird (who grew up in T&T) on board, as well as our cultural consultant Jim Findley, has been a blessing. They have both been a valuable source of knowledge.
What did your additional research uncover?
Trinidad and Tobago as twin islands are very important in Caribbean history – American history as well. Famously, T&T born civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, coined the term ‘Black Power’ when he was part of the student nonviolent committee in the US. He was then band from going back to Trinidad because it was during a time when Trinidad itself was having its own ‘Black Power’ awakening, so they didn’t want any additional fire! So, you’ve got so much history coming from this relatively small island, and for me, it was one of the reasons I chose this play. I felt like I wanted to dive deeper into it.
At the heart of the play are a married couple who find themselves wanting very different things out of life. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, but also very poignant and political. As a director, how hard has it been it been to straddle the comedy with the politics?
It’s a big challenge, but I think we’ve achieved it by going back to basics and understanding what the characters want. It feels like the comedy comes out of truth. Once we get to the truth of it, then things are going to be funny naturally. We are not actively trying to ‘play the comedy’, it just happens to be that the characters are going through these things, and they are very passionate about them.
The play also explores identity and belonging – issues that will resonate with your own story of migration. You came to the UK at the age of 10. What was it like for you leaving everything you knew in Uganda?
I saw it as a great thing, to be honest with you, because it was an opportunity to join the rest of my family. I had spent the first 10 years of my life with my auntie, uncle and cousins. My parents and siblings were all here in the UK. I didn’t see many British films growing up – I knew very little about the UK, but London particularly had been presented as this incredible place. I remember kids used to make jokes at school in Uganda.
Somebody would say “let me have some”, but the way they pronounced ‘some’, sounded like the name ‘Sam’. So, they would say “let me have Sam” and someone would reply, “Sam lives in London”!! [we both laugh] And that’s my dad’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 or the UK or US. We used to do role play of us being in films and TV and using a crazy American accent. So, packing my stuff and relocating to the UK was exciting. Of course, over the years (as an adult) it’s become a little more nuanced. It’s not all ‘milk and honey’.
What was your first memory of the UK?
It’s funny, one of the first things I remember doing when I stepped into our flat in South London was (TV) channel surfing and finding Sky Movies. And I was like, there is whole channel JUST for movies?! Back home I was used to getting a VHS video to watch – in fact the first film I watched back in Uganda was Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and it was dubbed! We had VJ’s (video jockeys) back then, who were basically audio describing the film. So, something would happen, and they would describe it in Luganda (usually in a funny way that would make the audience laugh). So, getting my head around the fact there was a whole channel devoted to movies was big!
I’m thinking about your education. Starting a new school anywhere, at any time, can be daunting. But in a new country, with a different accent, perhaps even harder. How was it for you?
You hit the nail on the head. It was difficult. I started in time for the new term, but I was 10 years old, and it was the final year of primary school. To be honest, kids were making fun of my accent, even up to the end of secondary school. It was tough because, you know, coming from Uganda, I had just left one of the best schools there and I was pretty academic. My mum used to praise me for that and use me as an example to my siblings! And then I came here to the UK, and I think there was an assumption that I wasn’t smart.
I have a profound memory of us working in small groups and a teacher asking, “where are potatoes traditionally from”? I said Ireland. And immediately someone said it can’t be that. Now granted this is not the correct answer, but the reason I was so confident was because in Uganda we called them Irish potatoes. But it was just that dismissal of anything I said. Stepping into secondary school, I excelled in languages. My aunt in Uganda was a French teacher, so I already knew little bits, and I ended up taking my GCSE French early. I also picked up Japanese and did that at GCSE. level. But looking back at other subjects, I think I was put into lower groups because there was an assumption that I was probably not that good, and eventually I started to buy into that.
What’s your relationship like with Uganda now? Do you get to go back often?
I do actually. I try to go back at least once a year. Last time I was there was in April, and I love it! I love Uganda. Of course, no country is perfect, the UK and US included.
Uganda does have its imperfections and problems, but as a country and a people we persevere – like many African countries have persevered. And our people, both in Uganda and the diaspora, find ways to prosper despite the challenges they’re met with.
Do you have ambitions of working in the arts in Uganda one day?
Yes, please! [laughs]. My dream would be to start a performing arts school or project, where I 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 great stuff I have learned here in the UK, and put it into the Ugandan context. I am making contacts. There is a great theatre called Yenze Theatre Conservatoire, and I’m in conversation with the Artistic director about ways in which we can possibly work together in the future. There are so many talented creatives in Uganda that are working towards building our creative industry and I’d love to be a part of that.
There was something of sea change in your industry back in 2020, or certainly a wave of optimism that things would be radically different for Black creatives in Britain. Do you feel there has been any lasting change?
If I’m honest I think there were a lot of things that happened that felt like ‘knee jerk’ reactions. Some things have continued, others have disappeared. Evidence of that is the fast turnover of non-white Artistic Directors in the UK since 2020. It’s really sad.
One positive thing that came out of that time for me personally though, was that it was when my directing started taking shape. I pivoted my focus from writing to directing, and that’s something that has snowballed, and I hope will be long-lasting. I also built some great relationships with different theatres.
You’re a Writer/Actor/Director. Do you think is important to be multi-disciplined 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 favourite creatives, like Michaela Coel and Kane Robinson (AKA Kano) prove you can do that – you can do multiple things. For some of us this comes out of necessity.
What does your dream job look like, Kalungi?
Oooo!! [Laughs] My dream job looks like me writing, directing and acting in my own series. I’d also like to direct a play I’m acting in as well. I want to challenge myself and do things creatively that people say shouldn’t be done. I think I’m working towards it, actually.
‘Meetings’ opens at the Orange Tree Theatre in south-west London, on 18 October, and runs until 11 November.