Joseph Abuk Dori tells Sravasti Datta that the South Sudanese walk with their heads held high ever since they achieved independence last year. His theatre group presented their take on Shakespeare.
Joseph Abuk Dori, director of South Sudan Theatre Company, says with pride: “This is the first representation of South Sudan, as an independent country overseas.” South Sudan is the world’s newest country, having won its independence in July 2011. South Sudan is recognised as a country by the United Nations and the Arab Union, but it is through theatre that they reached out to the world.
The South Sudanese version of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by Derik Uya Alfred Ngbangu, debuted at the Globe to Globe Theatre Festival last year to appreciation. Ranga Shankara staged the play as part of its 2012 Theatre Festival last week. For Joseph, both occasions were a proud moment for the South Sudanese.
“When we performed at the Globe, people were moved and quite excited. We made it known that we are bringing back to you your play in our manner, within our own context and imagination; which we did through costumes and dance. We told them that they must allow us to do it in our own way, even though they colonised us for many years and taught us how to use spoons.”
Joseph chose to stage Cymbeline as the plot has parallels with the history of South Sudan. “Our war against the Arabs is similar to the war fought between the British and the Romans. For decades, South Sudan sought to pluck away from the grip of the Arabs.”
William Shakespeare’s plays continue to resonate with people from different countries. Joseph considers the playwright a genius of extraordinary calibre, who had a remarkable literary mind. “His vision saw through the ages and he effectively depicted the culture of conflict in humanity. That’s why people all over the world consider him a literary saint.”
Joseph says that drama is yet to take root into the literary tradition of South Sudan. “Formal theatre began in the 1970s. The Skylark Dramatists’ Association was one of the first theatre groups to be formed. I had started it. The College of Drama, Music and Dance was later introduced into the University of Juba.” Joseph observes that there is a huge pool of talent, but that there are very few professional theatre groups. “We are amateurs, in the sense that theatre is not considered an occupation. ” African oral literature, on the other hand, has a unique style of theatre. “Indigenous plays are characterised by histrionics. There are no teaching institutions dedicated to it as yet.”
India fascinates Joseph. “It is mystic in every aspect, including theatre, and is a highly developed society. From this country, we will don the clothing of Indian literature and theatre.”
The South Sudanese were known as the black people of Sudan, but now that South Sudanese have achieved independence, they walk with their heads held high, be it in the United Nations or anywhere else. “The story of the South Sudanese will one day be featured in the media of the world. Our freedom has given us the impetus to do things with a new zeal and a new vision.”
Juba Arabic, in which Cymbeline was performed, was developed through interaction between the newcomers and indigenous people. “People in South Sudan were forbidden by law to go to the north, where the Arabs had settled and the Arabs from the north were also not allowed to go to the south. The Closed District Ordinance Act prevented everyone to go either direction of the border. This reduced the opportunity for the people to learn better Arabic. People learnt the language by observing the Arabs. They mixed some words of their own and a kind of pidgin language developed in the urban centres, particularly Juba. This type of Arabic came to be known as Juba Arabic. It does not have a formal script. We have advised the Government to clear the commission that suggests Juba Arabic be made the official language.”