On the eve of Uganda’s 59th birthday, I watched Tropical Fish.

I was not familiar with the source material of the Tropical Fish play when I watched it, but I am familiar with Doreen Baingana and have met her a time or two. Her stories are able to transport you to the emotions, decisions, and hopes of her characters. You can’t say you know Uganda’s literary giants and not know Doreen Baingana. Doreen is the kind of writer I want to be when I stop telling myself that I have writer’s block.

Doreen Baingana is an award-winning author of Tropical Fish: Stories Out Of Entebbe and the co-founder of Mawazo Africa Institute. She won the Grace Paley Award for Short Fiction in 2003 and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book, Africa Region, in 2006. She has been shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize three times. Lucky, her most recently shortlisted story, was published in the Ibua Journal in 2021. And to her impressive writing career, she has added the hat of playwright by adapting the short and titular story of her book, Tropical Fish, into a brilliant play.

Tropical Fish: Stories Out Of Entebbe

Because I wasn’t familiar with source material, I didn’t know what to expect. But with the track record of excellence that Tebere Arts Foundation has, I knew that I was in for a treat. I knew that I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I wasn’t. I can’t say that I’m equipped to review a play, but I will try. There’s a first time for everything, right?

Tropical Fish is a solo performance that tells the story of Christine. The play, which is over an hour long, is set in a bar where Christine tells the story of the relationship she gets into with an older white businessman, who exports tropical fish, while she was at University.

Esteri Tebandeke as Christine

The play starts with Christine waiting for her friend. As she waits, she starts to tell her story. Her life story. And the way the story unfolds leads you, the audience, to see the unraveling of a woman. Someone likened it to the peeling of an onion. With each layer she sheds, you get to see who she is. You get to see how she came to be. You see her decisions, her struggles with her self worth, her regrets, and you empathize. You are forced to empathize, because of the beautiful storytelling.

The theme of the play, I found, was self discovery. But within that self discover were a multitude of themes. Racism, abortion, sexuality and sex, mental health, poverty. You know, the issues that young women deal with.

One of the things that I love about this play, besides it’s brilliant storytelling and the actress who brought the character to life, is that it doesn’t exposition you into it’s time period. In fact, I don’t remember there being a mention of the time period it’s set in. The music, the set design, and the costume design show the audience when it’s set. The 90s. But because you empathize with the character, you see her in yourself or in your friends. And that’s a testament to how seriously Tebere takes it’s art. And a testament to how good the writing is. And a testament to how good the actress is.

The movement of the Behind-The-Scenes team felt like an orchestra. The lights, the music, the actress. Everything came together to deliver a powerful play that had me enthralled from the time Esteri Tebandeke opened her mouth to talk about a white man called Peter.

I watched the show that had Esteri Tebandeke as the actress and would love to see Lulu Jemimah’s take on the same character. Perhaps I’ll join in next weekend. I have been a fan of Esteri since I saw her in Queen of Katwe and can’t help but think she’s gunning for great things. And she will reach these things. Lulu Jemimah is daringly brilliant.

Lulu Jemimah as Christine

Tropical Fish is airing every weekend for the month of October (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) at Carnival restaurant. The physical tickets are limited to just 20 people because of Covid-19 restrictions. To book a ticket in advance, call Tebere Arts Foundation on +256775980037.

For those who can’t make it to the physical show, they have an online show. You can get those tickets here: https://www.quicket.co.ug/events/153999-tropical-fish/?ref=algolia-search#/

You can get copies of Doreen Baingana’s book, Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe, from the Ibua shop at just 35,000ugx or $9.80. Just follow this link: https://ibuajournal.com/product/tropical-fish-stories-from-entebbe/

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