Mango Roses: A Review
By Serubri Moses
The highlight of Mango Roses—an original musical—was a nostalgic duet titled ‘Under the Mango Tree’ featuring the musician Jessy Muyanja and actress Racquel. The song’s soulful chord changes bore striking resemblance to those in ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’, the 1960s hit.
Under the blue flood lights of the Jazzville stage, it didn’t matter that the two singers weren’t grandparents, as their roles specified, because they had two Broadway specialists: vocalist Kate Chapman and pianist-composer Mary Ann Ivan to coach them. Mango Roses is a recounting of Uganda’s troubled past weaved through the chaotic journey of two lead female characters, both called Rosie.
There was no grand tragedy behind the Mango Roses. The flower in the title promised Steel Magnolias, the musical. Instead, producer Cedric Thompson told me the musical emerged during a school trip. Tereka Desire’s choreography—especially in his structured movements of a traveling bus— typified the show’s backdrop.
As a play born from musings on a field trip, the piece was more metaphorical than narrative. However, they are also philosophical reflections on the nature of transience, temporality or impermanence. Transatlantic journeys filled Mango Roses: a British missionary’s leaving Uganda in 1963, and Rosie’s journey from America to volunteer at a women’s rights organisation in Uganda and the meditations surrounding them. The cost of being a woman, and the consequences of her decisions abound showed a series of philosophical ruminations on the journey back home.
The Ugandan government has in recent years increasingly adjusted structural policies surrounding the girl child as a direct result of international criticism of cultural attitudes towards women in Africa. Organisations set up in the name of protecting the girl child aim to stop female genital mutilation, teenage pregnancy, and domestic rape. Many of these NGO’s believe that Uganda’s traditional cultures victimise young women.
Mr. Thompson—also an English teacher—took his junior students on a field trip to Kabale in October 2012. The teenagers were least interested in the activities availed to camera-snapping tourists. “They were being teenagers,” Thompson says. He was clutching at straws when a tour of Sharp’s island in the middle of Lake Bunyonyi came up. A tour guide told the kids that they were going to “Punishment Island”.
The writing of Mango Roses came about as the teenagers questioned girls abandoned on the island. The imagined answers in the form of class assignments overwhelmed Thompson who passed the idea of a musical by his Broadway friends, Kate and Mary Ann, in New York. Luckily, they agreed on writing the musical.
The teenagers’ endless metaphoric inquiries into punishment island became dramatic songs such as ‘City Girl’. As a song, it fleshed out the character of Rosie, the girl who left the village for a career in gender advocacy in the city. Less emphasised on the character of Rosie, the American volunteer, who joked incessantly about being the mzungu (foreigner). Others also joked about her. “Mzungus are fascinated by everything we do; the good and the backward.” The audience burst out laughing.
A moment came when a blanket of silence covered the audience. “I didn’t expect you Rosie—an American—not to understand this … Is it cool to kneel? Is it cool to throw away everything that women are fighting for in equality?” Rosie’s journey back home to the village starts after this fight.
In his speech after the show Cedric Thompson thanked the cast whose team work made the show possible in only fifty hours. He spoke for a while about the artist Ronex Ahimbisibwe’s “magnificent ability to transform words and stories into art.”
The set, called Bowl of Expectations is a visual representation of the two Mango Roses; one half painted red and another blue. The bowl shape symbolises expectation for the artist. The ropes sewn into the bowl represent an unsettling duality present throughout the musical: young teenage girls on this island, and the freedom of being rescued by a heroic suitor.
On this disturbing and unresolved part of Ugandan history, director and vocalist Kate Chapman asks: “Is it possible that your family punished you for your mistakes and yet you ended up winning family and love?” She says this recalling the suitors who rescued the young women from the island and on the future those young women in new homes.
The viewer is left with a social-political rawness, encased in so much beauty. The pairing proves that art can be used to express complicated and difficult aspects in Ugandan society.