All the World’s a Stage: Faye Kabali-Kagwa on Rehearsing Realities and Reimagining Futures

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Jun 29, 2021
by Shiba Melissa Mazaza
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All the World’s a Stage: Faye Kabali-Kagwa on Rehearsing Realities and Reimagining Futures

Salzburg Global Cultural Innovator reflects on how pandemic-induced lockdowns have forced shifts in many types of performance Faye Kabali-Kagwa at the 2019 Annual Co-Lab of the Salzburg Global Cultural Innovators Forum

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”

This statement attributed to playwright William Shakespeare could not ring more true, as we look back on the year that brought the world quite literally to a standstill. COVID-19 and its effects showed us what really matters in today’s world – with Black lives being the most prominently vocalized. In an interview with Salzburg Global Seminar, Cape Town-based Salzburg Global Cultural Innovator and theater enthusiast Faye Kabali-Kagwa reflects on the roles we have played to bring us to this pivotal moment in history and how leaning on a network of young people who believe in creating a better world helped her find new ways to approach her passion for theater.

Under health and safety regulations, the world of performance-based arts had to shut its doors. However, the emergence of brands and organizations eager to protect their reputations found their way into the limelight, creating a new form of performance, eager to assure that they would be on the right side of history with refreshed mission statements proclaiming their support. It was in witnessing this that Kabali-Kagwa was able to revisit her own sensibilities and understand what true allyship looks and feels like.

“I used to find it very difficult to think of an ideal way of being... or an ideal life, or an ideal world,” says Kabali-Kagwa. “In a lot of ways, I’ve been thinking about how vision statements or mission statements for institutions (but also for yourself) are helpful in the sense that they bring to the fore things that you care about… 

“The truth of the matter is that there are always more ways in which we can be pushing back – small ways in which we can be empowering people; small ways in which we can be showing people kindness; small ways in which we can be socially conscious that don‘t come with status, don’t come with money, do not come with fame. They are practices. They are ideologies that are entrenched in how we view the world.”

In response to the ongoing pandemic, the Cultural Innovators Forum shifted its Annual Co-Lab from a week-long program in Salzburg to a month-long online engagement in 2020, with many Fellows opting to use the virtual space as a means to continue their connections long after the formal programming had ended. Moving to the virtual also enabled connections to be forged between years of different cohorts. 

South Africa’s lockdown forced Kabali-Kagwa too to bring her work into a digital space. However, with the help of a few fellow Cultural Innovators, she was able to retain a balanced approach to her work while being supportive of the Fellows that needed her too. Initiated by fellow curator from Baltimore, USA, Joy Davis, Kabali-Kagwa joined others from her Cultural Innovator Forum cohort on Zoom for weekly conversations – some that would last for hours on end. 

These were open sessions where people could come to share their feelings and speak about whatever was on their minds when the pandemic was at its most fear-inducing. For Faye, those sessions were essential – a lot of her peers were feeling lost, stir-crazy, and demoralized. For so many movers and shakers who were forced by the pandemic to stand still, they were providing COVID-19 support for artists and influencing policy, securing resources, and arranging support grants in hopes of salvaging their sectors. 

This put them in a position where they were often expected to have all the answers, which is a tough position to take when so much uncertainty lingered. There was not a lot of time to reflect when they were so busy doing damage control, and these weekly sessions enabled them to take a moment to do that while helping them navigate ideas like accountability for their own places in history, analyzing global power dynamics, and what solidarity really means for those who attended the Cultural Innovators Forum – all while being faced with a new mode of putting their learnings to good use. 

“I don’t know if there’s been a global shift in the acknowledgment of the way Black people have been treated historically. I know that last year was really, really big and the killing of George Floyd in particular hit very close… We have some Cultural Innovator Fellows from Minnesota who were protesting, and we were getting to that point in the lockdown where we were speaking weekly via Zoom, and it just was really, really real. People in South Africa could sympathize because there was extreme brutality happening in terms of evictions, even though they were supposed to be illegal during lockdown in the city of Cape Town where I live,” explains Kabali-Kagwa.

“In this online space, we were able to be there for each other in a way that often is difficult to do in real life.”

Kabali-Kagwa was forced to go back to her drawing board to figure out a new way of creating connections. It prompted her to use WhatsApp as her medium of choice to produce The Shopping Dead, a fast-paced dramedy performed live on the app, virtually co-produced and screened by the South African National Arts Festival at the tail-end of 2020. A never-before-attempted, innovative approach to theater, Kabali-Kagwa found a way to inspire herself and her sector. Passionate about who her audience is, how they live and how theater can be something that slots into life, instead of becoming an imposition, is at the heart of her move to this widely adopted messenger service, further bringing the imaginary into the day to day.

As the world made moves toward the virtual space, much of the outcry for justice and peace did the same. From the checkered intentions of black squares on Instagram to marches to parliament, demands for investigation, and hashtag badges of honor, the line between reality and ruse began to perforate.

“The performance of allyship is tricky, since at this particular stage in our lives, we’re really, really, really cognizant of our professional standing and what that can mean,” says Kabali-Kagwa. 

“I think theater allows us to rehearse different realities... different ways of being so that they become embedded in who we are… so that when the real thing comes, it’s easier to respond. I think rehearsing futures in our daily lives is important. 

“I’m much more of a realist, though, and I don’t think brands and their allyship should be performed. The change needs to go back to the vision and the heart of the way they operate. Creating a new world rests in thinking about things on a molecular level, informing the way you act, the way you behave... 

“If I was more optimistic, I do think at different points in our lives we need something that transports us out of our realities and gets us caught up in a moment. We need to see what could be. The problem with performance is that it gives you a glimpse into what could be. It doesn’t have any material benefits. At the end of the day, you take the costume off, the lights come down... It’s useful in preparing us, but the problem is that it ends! There is a choice to not engage anymore.”

Whether allyship is real or performative, it seems that it is the way in which we choose to act that will best determine what this age will be known for. Thanks to the space held by Kabali-Kagwa and her fellow Cultural Innovators, one thing is certain: we cannot reach a better future without helping each other on the journey in whatever ways we can.

“For me, the Cultural Innovators Forum became pivotal in trying to figure out what kind of organization I wanted to be aligned with,” explains Kabali-Kagwa, who returned as a facilitator for this year’s online Annual Co-Lab – all of which was co-created between existing Fellows of the Cultural Innovators Forum and Salzburg Global Associate Program Director Faye Hobson.

“The Cultural Innovators Forum was one space where I could speak about my WhatsApp project, to get feedback and to have other innovative creators’ input over a period of months was invaluable. 

“One of the things I do well is connecting and holding space for people. I think Faye [Hobson] chose me because I have an enthusiasm in that respect that goes beyond the tangible. To do that was empowering for me.”

Faye Kabali-Kagwa is a Cultural Innovator Forum Fellow from the Cape Town Hub. She first joined the Cultural Innovator Forum in 2019.