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The Politics of 'Good Rain' : Theater: Ugandan actor George Seremba recounts his life and near-death after an attempted execution by firing squad in his play, which has its U.S. premiere tonight.

September 30, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When he woke up one morning, Uganda theater arts student George Bwanika was concerned about his own future and that of a terrorized country, but he had no idea how his day would actually end. It was 1980, and the worst was supposed to be over. The insane, bloody dictatorship of Gen. Idi Amin had been crushed in a quick but violent coup a year before, and Milton Obote had just claimed electoral victory as Uganda's president. Victory, however, was not enough for Obote: His enemies were numerous--many of them fellow opponents of Amin--and they had to be rooted out. Obote's enemies list included activist students, like George Bwanika.

Sensing the heat was on, Bwanika was preparing to leave Uganda. But that day, he was in the wrong building at the wrong time, and police arrested him.

Hours of torture ensued. In the evening, Bwanika was taken in a jeep by a firing squad to a jungle. He stood at a distance from his executioners. He made a final statement. A volley of bullets flew through the air, one of them hitting Bwanika's left leg and sending him rolling into a marsh. After more bullets were fired and a grenade was thrown, the squad finally left. The rain started falling; rain that, as much as anything, saved Bwanika's life.

Escaping Uganda with the aid of family and friends and changing his name to George Seremba, the actor exiled himself to Canada (he now lives in Toronto), where he wrote his own theatricalized account of his life and amazing near-death in "Come Good Rain," which has its American premiere tonight at Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble.

Seremba, 35, dominates any room he's in by the sonorous power of his voice and his inviting manner. Even when he points to the bullet wounds of his attempted execution (one looks like the savage effect of a grizzly attack), he can joke about them.

Critics, such as Jill Lawless in Toronto's Now magazine, have noted this same bearable lightness of being in Seremba's solo performance: "So strong is Seremba's warmth and dignity . . . that in the end this tale of death and a nation's cruelly dashed hopes leaves the audience feeling both moved and strangely comforted."

Born in the southern Ugandan province of Buganda, Seremba describes his childhood as "traumatic, since we witnessed such violent events so young. My fondest memories were listening to my mother tell stories."

Even after Uganda's independence from British colonial rule in 1962, Seremba says, "it was a world of edicts and pronouncements, impossible for an innocent childhood. I remember how we sang and danced in the streets when Amin took power in 1971. We thought that this gentle giant would be a good leader. After that began the nightmare.

"It was like living in the lion's mouth," says Seremba of Amin's regime, which killed thousands of Ugandans. Somehow, Seremba says, he had the nerve at 17 to urge his friends to stone Amin's car in the capital of Kampala, reasoning "if they killed us young people, perhaps the world would notice."

He showed the same daring as a drama major at Makarere, organizing protests against Amin, and later, Obote. "It was guerrilla theater. The stage was where I developed my sense of individuality and of how art had the power to make a difference. It was very easy to decry colonialism, but I'm most concerned about the evils of today. I was listened to because I was an actor and known as willing to face up to evil."

Government spies noticed him as well, and after a brief period of self-imposed exile in Nairobi, Kenya, Seremba returned to Uganda. The spies, though, had eyes in Nairobi, where Seremba was seen with artist enemies of Obote. Shortly after December, 1980, election results that Seremba says Obote manipulated into a victory, the student once again considered exile.

But he was arrested, after visiting a friend. "I had been seen with enemies, and that was enough. What they lacked in technologically sophisticated torture, they made up for in psychological torture," he says. "It's very humiliating to be told to bark like a dog. They jabbed me with rifles, burned me with cigarettes. And then I heard the word kill , before they threw me in a jeep and drove to a popular execution spot in the jungle.

"There was a funny moment when the soldiers and I agreed to where I would stand before they shot me. Close by, ironically, was the foundation stone for a monument to be built in memory of the victims of Amin. I made three requests: Not to be shot in the back, to make a final statement--which is in the play--and have a last look at the moon and the stars. I felt liberated."

After the first shot, bullets and grenade shrapnel hit Seremba five times as he rolled into the grassy marsh. "I waited for the soldiers to cut off my head as a trophy," he says, "but they never came." He would have bled to death that night, except the heavy ensuing rain clotted his wounds. A boy from a nearby village found Seremba the next morning.

"I dedicate my play to my Auntie Gladys," Seremba notes, "because she was the one who brought me back to health, not the doctors, some of whom would have been happy to let me die on the operating table because of my politics."

During performances of "Come Good Rain" in Ottawa, reports the play's director, Isabelle Fox, Obote supporters stood up and "made a ruckus." Seremba, though, exhibits no fear as he prepares for his U.S. debut: "This is a play of witness and memory, and just like any survivor of the Holocaust, I never want to forget these scars I carry."

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