Playwrights in the Heart of Darkness

Wilton Ndayisenga, Rwandan Playwright

The last thing I expected to find on a recent research trip to Rwanda and Uganda was another playwright.   But life is full of surprises.  In planning my trip I had read a lot about gorillas and birds and war, a little about native dance performances, and certainly nothing about theatre.

Agahozo Shalom Youth Village is an amazing new orphanage school in Rwanda that has been developed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.  The founder of the project is Anne Heyman, a South African-born lawyer and mother of three who lives in Manhattan.  The school is modeled after ones that were built in Israel for orphans of the Holocaust.  Anne recognized that thousands upon thousands of Rwandan orphans were in the same tragic position as so many Jewish children after WWII. 

I made arrangements to visit Agahozo Shalom and as it turned out, stayed there one night.  I met the faculty, spoke to the student drama club, and spent time with the school principal, Wilton Ndayisenga.  At that time I was immersed in reading about the history of central Africa that led to the genocide.  Wilton told me that when he was 18 he ran away to Uganda to join an insurgent Rwanda army after his father was killed by Hutus.  He was among the forces that Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current president, led back into the country in 1994, halting the genocide but not before one million Rwandans had been murdered.  Back in Rwanda Wilton learned that his mother, brother and sister had been murdered while he was away. 

Wilton revealed to me that he writes plays and peppered me with questions about writing and theatre and America.  I asked why he chooses that art form in a country with no artistic infrastructure.  All he could say was that he is drawn to it.  Wilton has written two plays, one of which has been performed by students at his school.  He’s had no formal training in dramatic writing and asked if I could send him a few books about playwriting.  I mailed him two that I had found useful early in my career – The Playwright’s Process by Buzz McLaughlin and Robert McKee’s Story.  I also encouraged him to apply to Sundance Institute’s fairly new East Africa theatre initiative.

If you happen to be pruning your library of good playscripts or books about writing, I know Wilton would appreciate receiving them.  You can send them to:  Ndayisenga Wilton, Principal, Liquidnet Family High School, Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, P.O. Box 7299, Kigali, Rwanda.  Also Wilton will be making a short visit to New York in February.  (His email address is ndayisengaw[at]yahoo.fr) 

The next time we start to whine about theatre in America we might think about a school principal in Rwanda who despite all odds is alive, his entire birth family murdered, who is contributing to his society, and finding time to express himself by writing plays in a country that has pulled itself out of unthinkable hell.

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