To those who enjoyed the peak years of contemporary theatre from the 70s to the 90s, JOSEPH SEMAKULA NDUGWA – popularly known as Omugave Ndugwa – was a kingpin within Uganda’s performing arts industry.
He shaped modern-day theatre by grooming young artistes and turning them into stars under his group The Black Pearls. An enterprising and classy man, he was a playwright, director, vocalist and instrumentalist. At the age of 66, Ndugwa’s candle burnt out on June 9.
Ndugwa left several incomplete scripts and as Yudaya Nangonzi writes, even on his sickbed, Ndugwa was hopeful about returning to the stage. For Ndugwa, nothing came naturally like holding a pen and putting to paper his art. He always looked forward to producing and directing exceptional productions even though he didn’t hold any professional training in art at the time.
Playwright Edrisa Wankalubo Simwogerere is Ndugwa’s longtime friend having met him in Jinja in 1969. At the time, Ndugwa was still a teenager when he followed Wankalubo into Jinja Dramatics Society (JDS), which comprised mainly of professional teachers and engineers. This allowed them to learn from the best.
“Ndugwa’s biggest push was the late Dismus Kiwanuka Sembali during our time in JDS. Sembali loved and trained us so much and that’s why Ndugwa became exceptional and never bothered to join Makerere University for an MDD course,” Wankalubo said.
“Sembali is the secret behind Ndugwa’s goodness that many people didn’t know. He [Ndugwa] didn’t spend a lot of time in the group but for the few moments they spent with Sembali, he grasped a lot.”
RELOCATION TO KAMPALA
According to Wankalubo, it was in 1970 that Ndugwa was offered an opportunity to work as a shop attendant in Kampala. He also eked out a living making bags.
“He would trek from Kawempe to town to attend to the shop and also use some of the space to sell his bags. With time, his extravagant female boss led to the collapse of the business,” Wankalubo recalled.
Thereafter, Ndugwa teamed up with a group of youngsters mainly from Kawempe that converged at YMCA and joined Kampala Negro Angels in 1971. Ndugwa would juggle his bag-making business and drama. His first play, Obulamu Bwa Sambirige, depicted the life story of a greedy young man who squanders his inheritance, grabs that of his relatives but later turns into a pauper.
He followed it with Office Njerere (a tale of weakness in service delivery in public offices during the 70s), Segirinya ne Nagirinya (rotates around consequences of not respecting Buganda cultural norms), and Olugendo lwa Wasajja – an adventure of a Buganda prince which later won the National Arts Festival for Central region in 1974.
Ndugwa was at his best before managerial issues erupted within the group. Most of the members were relatives and they took it as a family group – to the disagreement of other members.
In 1977, Ndugwa, together with Omulagira John Kayondo, Halima Namakula, Jalia Walusimbi, and Samuel Semaala, among others, exited Negro Angels to form the Black Pearls Limited a year later. However, the idea of Black Pearls was the brainchild of Ndugwa and Kayondo.
Meanwhile, Wankalubo – a talented singer and director – had also established himself in the city with Kampala United Players (KUPs) along with Sembali and Isa Jjemba. His long-standing friendship helped Black Pearls settle in well to the extent of loaning them some actors to pull off their first play dubbed Nsalala N’omukwano at the National theatre in 1978. This play was written by Ndugwa while Wankalubo was the director.
The group went on to launch more plays such as Ziribasanga n’Essanyu, Wassajja Mu Bizinga bye Ssese, Ekitangaala mu Nzikiza, Omusaayi gw’Obutiko, among others. Renowned playwright Christopher Mukiibi is among the few Ndugwa trusted with proofreading some of his scripts before they aired.
As they grew bigger in the eighties, more theatrical groups formed, and it became harder to sustain the group without a permanent home. The likes of Bakayimbira Drammactors had secured Pride theatre, The Ebonies at Theatre Excelsior (now Bat Valley). The other options available in the city such as Norman cinema (current Watoto church), Hollywood theatre in Katwe, Blue Star hall in Bwaise, and Biwologoma were always overbooked.
Others popular venues like Broadway theatre in Kitala- Entebbe, Patel Shamji hall in Masaka and Colline hotel in Mukono, among others, were far.
OPENS RIVERSIDE THEATRE
Onosanyukira wa ku weekend? Riverside theatre – you probably remember that advert on Radio Uganda from 1986 to 1997. With support from government connections of playwright Kiyimba Musisi, Black Pearls got a permanent home in the centre of the city.
It was an abandoned Indian temple that had been turned into a warehouse. It was located at what is currently known as Kisekka market. There was no river per se but it was in proximity to the Nakivubo channel. On the other side was Kyaggwe road PS playground popularly known as Wembley, formerly the training ground for Express FC.
Ndugwa and company refurbished it and turned it into a theatre. Riverside became the cradle of young future theatre gurus. What made Ndugwa’s plays stand out is that fans were assured of seeing young, beautiful and classy girls on stage like Mary Semaluulu, Sarah Mukasa, Nuruh Kizito, Oliver Buwule, Annet Kiwe Lwanga and Irene Munyenga, among others.
Others included Jalia Walusimbi, Betty Tebategeera, Bob Fred Mpiima and Jolly Lulibe, among others. No group had more beautiful girls like Black Pearls. Ndugwa used it as a bait to pull crowds. On a personal note, Ndugwa exuded class and flamboyancy never before seen in theatre. Also a perfectionist by nature, his stunts such as rain on the stage were trendsetters.
Wankalubo noted that although he was an outstanding playwright, it took some time to drag Ndugwa to the stage due to his shyness.
“One time, I discovered that Ndugwa had written about five plays but featured in none. He would keep backstage most of the time monitoring his scripts. He claimed to have stage fright but when I insisted that he must act as well, his craft was topnotch,” he said.
In many ways, Ndugwa turned around Ugandan theatre as other groups picked a leaf from Black Pearls. All went on well until 1990 when government returned the facility to the Indian Muslim women. That was the start of the decline of the group. The rent was eventually hiked yet ticket ales were running down vis-à- vis emerging innovations in the entertainment sector.
“This kind of operation hardened cash flow and forced some disgruntled senior members of Black Pearls around 1993 to leave the group. Rent arrears had accumulated and the theatre closed,” Ndugwa was quoted as saying.
Thereafter, Ndugwa started moving from one theatre to the other, showcasing his plays. Around 1995, Riverside theatre was taken over by some former members of the group who renamed it Theatre Continental but still, the very reasons also made them close it.
With the group in disarray, some of Black Pearl’s young actors such as Abby Mukiibi, Kato Lubwama, Mariam Ndagire and Ashraf Ssimwogerere broke away to form their own groups such
as Afri Talent and Diamond Ensemble.
When CBS FM opened in 1996 as the first Luganda station, it turned around their fortunes. Lubwama and Mukiibi were hired as presenters and this offered them a bigger platform to publicize their new groups and plays.
LEAVES UGANDA FOR USA
Between 1997 and 1999, a frustrated Ndugwa left the country for greener pastures. Omulangira Kayondo’s death also hit the group hard, forcing the members to lose steam. So, losing Riverside theatre was a major blow to his life.
In 2000, he returned and reclaimed Riverside theatre. He went on to rename it The Pearl theatre to signal a new start. To Ndugwa, Pearl was a sign of hope backed by financial respite he had got while in the USA.
Unfortunately, things did not go well mostly because theatre fans had already moved on with the trend of vibrant, music-filled and action-packed plays of the day. Ndugwa’s philosophical approach couldn’t attract the mostly young fans and within two years, he was forced to rethink.
Matters were not helped by the continuous redevelopment of the Nakivubo channel that blocked the main access road while the boom of the Kisekka market made the place more crowded.
For two years, Pearl theatre fans hated the environment. Ndugwa abandoned the comeback to return to the USA. In no time, what was onetime a thriving venue for arts area turned into shops for motor vehicle spare parts. It remains so to date.
Ndugwas a master at nurturing talent
Ndugwa worked tooth and nail to build a crop of young talented people that are still envied to date in theatre. Whereas budding actors have lately opted for comedy which is increasingly mistaken for acting, Ndugwa kept his cast focused. He was occasionally dismayed by people who mixed up the two fields.
Former Lubaga South MP and actor Kato Lubwama is one proud beneficiary of Ndugwa’s sweat.
“When Ndugwa first approached me in 1986 to join his group, I declined the offer because I was a talented footballer. He, however, employed me and other friends to carry desks from the defunct Kyaggwe Road and Green Valley primary schools that would be used by guests every weekend at Riverside theatre,” Lubwama recalled.
It’s during this process that Lubwama, together with Ssimwogerere, Herbert ‘Masanda’ Nsubuga, MP Joseph Sewungu, and Rev Peter Bakaluba Mukasa sat for interviews to officially join the Black Pearls,” he said.
Mean while, Ssimwogerere acknowledges that he learned how to use short, catchy, and interesting lines for dialogue under Ndugwa’s mentorship. But when he parted ways with the group in 1994, he thought him and Ndugwa had become sworn enemies.
After almost a year, the two met in the corridors of the National theatre but Ssimwogerere was trapped in shame. Instead, Ndugwa invited him to his office for a tete-a-tete.
“He told me not to be afraid of meeting him and that it’s normal for people to part ways in art. He then revealed to me that when he left Negro Angels, the matter was sorted in court but he permitted me to stage all the plays I wrote while still in Black Pearls. That is unusua linart,” Ssimwogerere said.
Ndugwa also set up a group of young children called Wandugu under the Black Pearls. It was a nursery section of sorts teaching music, dance and drama and feeding the Black Pearls and other groups. Former presidential candidate and NUP principal Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu was once part of the Wandugu group.
Ndugwa's private life
While in the USA, he did a nursing course but didn’t lose his grasp on the arts. Until his death, he was a dedicated practicing nurse who was hungry for new knowledge. Little wonder – a young man who emerged from Masaka and directly ventured into art – managed to elevate his skills.
He had an Advanced Certificate in Scriptwriting from Tulsa College of Performing Arts in the USA, Diploma in Open Theatre Development from Helsinki-Finland, Advanced Diploma in Screen Script Writing from Shakespeare Summer School – the UK, Advanced Certificate in Cultural Identity from Stockholm-Sweden, and attended countless art-related conference in various countries.
On a personal note, Ndugwa was overly a soft-spoken, stylish but shy man who always maintained a low profile. He had a keen eye for detail in his scripts and never used any improvisations while on stage in his more than 30 plays. His cast would be mindful about sticking to the scripts. In case one forgot their lines, prompters would readily bail them out.
Nsubuga, who joined the Black Pearls in 1986 while in S1 at Lubiri SS, said Ndugwa was one playwright who could write a script and assigns a character fitting one like a glove.
“When we met, he instantly liked my height and youthful voice. Omugave Ndugwa never entertained importation of lines in his scripts, and he could easily blast and tell you to put them in your 16-page script,” he said.
Nsubuga reiterated that virtually the whole cast would sleep over at the theatre. Like any person, he would get low moments but his ever-smiling face would cover up for most of the mistakes on stage. Meanwhile, throughout his 66 years, Ndugwa’s love for the Buganda kingdom and the Kabaka, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi, was unmatched.
In May 2015, Kabaka appointed Ndugwa as his representative (omubaka w’obwakabaka) in California, Hawaii, and Arizona. He was full of joy serving the kingdom and, most importantly, the Kabaka whom he once hosted at his defunct Riverside theatre in 1993 – a week to Mutebi’s coronation.
Ndugwa is survived by a widow, Elizabeth Semakula, children and grandchildren
Plays written By Ndugwa
• Obulamu bwa Ssembirige (1972)
• Olugendo lwa Wasajja (1974)
• Ssegirinya ne Naggirinya (1975)
• Sseruganda Tontya (1976)
• Office Njereere (1975)
• Abaali Baseka
• Nsalala n’Omukwano (1978)
• Wasajja mu Bizinga by’e Sesse (1978)
• Ekitangaala mu Nzikiza (1981)
• Oluyimba lw’e Nderema (1983)
• Omusaayi gw’obutiko (1983)
• Zziribasanga ne Ssanyu (1983)
• Ggalimpitawa (1984)
• Amaka mu Buwanganguse (1985)
• Emikwano Nsi (1988)
• The Divided Family – Oluyo (1988)
• Ekimuli mu Maggwa I (1988)
• Ekimuli mu Maggwa II (1989)
• The Narrow Escape – Olugwanyu (1990)
• Traffic Jam – Akalippo (1991)
• Olutindo lw’Emomboze – The Orphan’s Bridge (1991)
• Saa Mbaya (1992)
• Ku Saawa Esembayo (1992)
• Mayengo (1994)
• Ekkoligo (1995)
• Enseekeezi (1996)
• Eka (1996)
• Erindya (1998)
• Nnamukwakula (1998)
• Endalagge (1999)
• Kirimuttu (2000)
• Ssekkono (2003)
• The Love Collision (2011 Movie)
• Out of Great Lakes (2012 Movie)