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Acclaimed New Play Finds Joy & Hope in Women’s Struggles

Taking the bus to school each day at Waterford Kamhlaba UWC in Swaziland, Kemiyondo Coutinho was intrigued by a group of women street vendors who seemed always to be smiling. When Kemi began talking to the women, she learned how little they’d had to be optimistic about — they had struggled through deep loss and the frustration, even violence, of pervasive gender inequity.

“Yet when you walk past these women, you can’t see a trace of that,” said Kemi, who was born in Uganda and grew up in Swaziland. “That’s what got me into it: wanting to find out what lay behind those smiles.”

Two years later, as a first-year Davis UWC Scholar at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, Kemi took an acting class with Stephanie Arnold, author of The Creative Spirit: An Introduction to Theater. The two “responded to each other immediately,” the professor said. “I appreciated all her energy.” Kemi told her teacher she had written a play, at UWC, based on her conversations with the street vendors. Arnold asked to read it.

Fast-forward: last autumn, after a half-year of work with the professor on her script and staging, Kemi performed Jabulile, her one-woman play (the title means “joyful”), at the National Arts Festival in Grahamtown, South Africa. Her characters spoke of AIDS, infant mortality, alcoholism, spousal abuse, all sorts of heartbreak — yet they filled the stage with their soulful, passionate embrace of life.

Her viewers were South Africa’s multiracial, multicultural mix; and the show “was really, really well received,” said Arnold, who was there. A reviewer wrote that “Jabulile leaves audiences feeling they can make a difference.”

At Lewis & Clark, where Kemi earlier premiered her play, “she’s always reflecting a broader perspective than some of our other students have,” said Prof. Arnold. “This particular project I know has already inspired some of our other students to think about what they might do.

“Doing this work,” she added, “was simply exhilarating.”