Theatre review: Bringing 'Tropical Fish' to life

This story was published in the New Vision on 3rd November 2021 about our annual production "Tropical Fish".

Kalungi Kabuye

11/3/20213 min read

Play: Tropical Fish (based on the short story by Doreen Baingana) Actor: Esteri Tebandeke/Lulu Jemimah Directors: Sarah Nansubuga, Mshai Mwangola

Showed at the Ndere Centre and the Carnival Restaurant

Review by Kalungi Kabuye

Would I have enjoyed the play Tropical Fish more if I hadn’t read the book? Avid readers always have this problem, and the debate whether it is better to first watch production and then the book, or vice versa, will not stop anytime soon. But I’ve read Doreen Baingana’s award-winning story many times over, so was curious how the Tebere Arts Foundation production would present it.

The play has been running during the weekends of October, first at Ndere Centre and then at the Carnival Restaurant in Naguru. I caught the very last show on Sunday at the Carnival. Based on Baingana’s short story, is about a young campus girl, Christine Mugisha, who has an affair with an older white man, a fish exporter.

What do the people around her, friends and colleagues, think of her? And those around the white man, what do they think about the affair? The play is a solo performance, and the roles were divided between Lulu Jemimah and Esteri Tebandeke. It is always a difficult endeavour for a solo performer to hold the audience’s attention, and it was doubly difficult at the Carnival restaurant, which was obviously not designed as a place to watch plays. Laughter and noise from a function in the gardens often interrupted our concentration. Tebandeke was captivating in the role, and she did a remarkable job in bringing the character’s ‘don’t judge me, I don’t really care what you think’ attitude to life.

When Baingana published her book in 2005, it created something of a cultural shock in Uganda’s writing circles with its casual treatment of sex, which was a taboo of sorts. It was an intimate performance, with strangely many episodes of silence, in spite of the music that provided a soundtrack to the story (I’m still trying to figure how many versions of the song Malaika was played during the production).

The setting was in a bar, where Christine is supposedly waiting for her friend Miriam. This is where she tells us the story of the white man that exports tropical fish, which are fast disappearing from Uganda’s lakes and rivers, often before they are even identified. I’m not sure why a bar setting was chosen, it could as well have been any other place. We can’t help but think that Christine’s encounter with the white man meant that she ended up in a bar, taking endless sips of Uganda Waragi as she tells her story.

Are Ugandan girls that take white men as lovers destined to end up in bars, seeking audiences to tell their sad stories? Are we supposed to feel sorry for Christine and what she went through? The image of a ‘spoilt girl’, drinking and smoking in a bar, might put some off. I bet there were people in the audience thinking to themselves, ‘serves her right’. What does Christine get from this affair, apart from a chance to escape from the dusty town and enjoy glasses of gin-and-tonic in a big airy house on top of Muyenga hill? Is that all she’s worth? Does she even care that she is being used by the white man?

In an interview, Baingana explained that she wanted to explore the role of girls as sex objects. And that attitudes towards women haven’t changed much since then. But it was exhilarating and absorbing to watch a live performance after almost two years, and just for that reason it was an afternoon well spent. There must be many people that are very tired of staring at a television screen as we seek entertainment. In the end, it was obvious even the cast and crew were sad it was ending. Hats off to the Tebere Arts Foundation for pulling it off under difficult circumstances.

Because of SOP restrictions, only 20 people were allowed in, and we all had to keep our masks on for an hour and a half duration. Big kudos to Tebandeke for his great performance; I would have loved to watch Lulu Jemimah’s performance, too, but this was the last show. If this was a precursor of things to come as the country slowly opens up, then we are in for some great times.

Esteri Tebandeke as Christine in the Tebere Arts Foundation's production of Tropical Fish at the Carnival Restaurant on Sunday. (Credit: Kalungi Kabuye)