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Ugandan Playwright Talks Blackness In America

Adong Judith smiles
Mary Cullen
Adong Judith first visited ISU as part of a six-week residency with the School of Theatre and Dance.

Adong Judith was just a girl during the 1986 Northern Uganda War that divided her home country. This year, Judith was a keynote speaker at Illinois State University's Culturally Responsive Campus Community Conference, telling the story of realizing her blackness.

Judith came to the U.S. in 2011 as part of a residency with Sundance Theater Lab.

"I felt like the 10-day residency was kind of a little deceptive. It gave me only the American dream side of the U.S. because when you come under a residency like Sundance Theater Lab, obviously you're very well taken care of, you're protected,” Judith said. “So I got a different side of the U.S. that was exciting, where I felt like all of my dreams could come true.”

One year later, she came back to America and attended Pennsylvania’s Temple University as a Fulbright Scholar. At Temple, she experienced what she called the biggest shock of her life.

“I always say I had this epiphany that I'm a black person. I never knew that I was black until 2012,” Judith said. “And for me, it became a big challenge to navigate how do I live my life as a black person who is under scrutiny even just walking on the street or going to a shopping mall.”

But she said the hardest part of realizing her blackness was combining that with being a playwright.

“Having some of my white professors and some of my white classmates tell me how my story is not African enough or black enough because they have a certain notion or stereotype of what an African story should be like or sound like,” Judith said. “That was difficult.”

She said writing was always a passion of hers, but there was pressure of embodying the black voice in America.

“Writing became something like torturous for me. Because I felt like every time I wrote and shared the script, I felt like I was going to hear something about blackness rather than about this story that I'm telling, and the characters in this story. I feel like it's really hard for black artists in the U.S. because then you carry the burden of the black community, and I felt like my white classmates didn't have that burden.

“They could tell individual stories,” Judith said. “But, somehow I had to be the face of black, the face of African, the face of black women or black African women.”

A few years after finishing her program at Temple, Judith attended Illinois State University this fall. She directed her play “Ga-AD!” as part of a six-week residency program with the School of Theatre and Dance.

“Ga-AD!” is part of Silent Voices Uganda, a nonprofit performing arts company founded by Judith.

"For me, Silent Voices Uganda is about telling stories of disadvantaged people. It's not to say that these people don't have voices,” she said. “When I came up with the name Silent Voices, for me, that's not what it meant, but rather that their voices were being silenced."

Judith said she can understand those viewpoints because she lived through it as a young girl in Northern Uganda.

“In 1986 when the (Northern Uganda) War that broke out that brought in the current government took place, I found myself moving from privileged to underprivileged,” she said. “So that really influenced me to want to tell stories of underprivileged groups.”

Judith’s visits to the U.S. fell before and during Donald Trump’s presidency, but she said she can’t compare her experiences in that context. Philadelphia and Bloomington-Normal are too different, she said.

"For me, when Donald Trump became the president, and maybe even pre- him becoming the president, like during the campaign season, one of the things that I felt like, it might seem like it's negative to Americans or the globe, but to me I felt like it was a positive.”

She said that positivity stems from racism in America becoming so obvious.

“At Temple at times when I shared my experience, my white friends doubted me or questioned whether I was imagining the things,” Judith said. “And I feel like President Trump coming into the presidency, that's kind of made it a lot more obvious to some white people who doubted that there was racism or there was any such thing as racism.”

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