Driven by a passion for the Arts, twenty-three year old Ugandan actress, playwright and now artistic director of NuVo Arts Festival, Kemiyondo “Kemi” Coutinho has a focus on theatre for social change.
Growing up in Swaziland, Kemi attended Waterford Kamhlaba UWCSA for high school. There, she was exposed to multiple nationalities and a diverse array of skills. In her last year, she wrote her first one- woman play ‘Jabulile!’, which told the story of market vendors and the challenges they faced being women in Swaziland. She went ahead and took it to the Grahamstown National Festival in South Africa.
After acquiring a scholarship to Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, USA, she continued to pursue her writing and focus on female empowerment. It was here that she met her mentor, Stephanie Arnold, and together they turned ‘Jabulile!’ into a reality. They brought it back to the Grahamstown National Festival for the second time and the play was chosen to be a part of the Gender Studies Symposium at the college and went on to do performances in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Canada.
The partnership between Kemi and Stephanie Arnold continued and the duo worked together on Kemi’s most recent one woman show, ‘Kawuna…You’re it!’, which tells the story of three Ugandan women all affected by HIV/AIDS in different ways as they find strength in each other. The play premiered at the Gender Studies Symposium in 2012 and has recently been performed at the Sky Festival in her current conservatory training. It was was also chosen to be part of a New York Global Spotlight Reading with Hybrid Works.
“Art changes people and people change the world.” – Kemiyondo Coutinho
So who is Kemi?
Tough question! I am still finding out. Right now, I am in a program that asks me that very question everyday and the answer changes dramatically depending on the day. I will answer who I am today. Right now. In this very moment. I am a twenty-three- year-old trying to find the five year old in me who had the answers to everything. Ask me again in an hour.
What/Who drove you towards theatre, writing plays and inspired your love for the arts in general?
Attention. When I was in the fifth grade, I was in a play and everyone said, “Wow! You’re so good!” and I thought this was a good way to get attention. Then, it was a childish love. Sometimes, the most pure love is. I wanted to act in a play about African women and I could not find one. It dawned on me that no one was wrong for me so I decided to write ‘Jabulile’ which I wrote in two days. I realised then that I had plenty of voices in my head that needed to come out. The impact I saw it have on the audience confirmed that this was my calling. My love for art has grown because I see how fast it can impact a group of people in a way that no other form can. It has no language barriers. It’s immediate. Anyone who knows me knows I am the most impatient person. Art never made me wait.
What is your opinion on the reception of the Arts in Uganda as compared to all other places in the world you have been?
The Arts in Uganda is slowly growing. I have seen a huge shift in the past few years than before. I now see a lot more galleries than I had seen before. The music scene is definitely on the rise. Last year, I performed in Judith Adong’s “Silent Voices” and that was a huge part of my artistic growth. That said, I do feel the Arts are not recognized for their full potential. Whilst entertainment is a huge part of the Arts, they also have the power to change a society and have done so for many other societies. They can and should be a part of changing society for the better. Youth should be encouraged to pursue their passion and not forced to venture into more “respectable” careers. Through NuVo I hope to shed light on the power that art can have on addressing social issues such as HIV, which this year’s festival will address.
Where do you see yourself 5-10 years from now?
Another hard one! I am learning to take it day by day as far as planning my life out. I have no idea what my dreams and aspirations will be five years from now so that will totally dictate where I will be. I know this. I will be writing and I will be telling someone’s story.
How do you envision a true African woman?
I am so afraid of labels. It’s a new fear I have developed. All we can strive to be is true to ourselves. There is nothing more beautiful to me than seeing a woman who is oozing self-confidence and has found herself and the God within her. I guess the best way I could answer is a true African woman is someone who can define for herself what being African is, and what being a woman is and being true to that.
When you’re not acting or writing plays, what do you do for fun?
Laughing with someone! I love to laugh.
Five Randoms … favourite colour?
Yellow! My whole room is yellow.
Mirinda Fruity. So much sugar but oh, so good! I also like watching really bad television shows. Like, bad reality TV. It’s terrible, but it’s what I do when I don’t want to think.
All time biggest celebrity crush?
It used to be Timbaland. Yes, Timbaland. Then it was Tyrese but he has become a tad weird to me. Now it’s Trevor Noah. I love to laugh. Ask me again in an hour!
Most embarassing moment?
*laughs* In high school. Aged thirteen. I was the only flat chested girl in this dance we were doing. I stuffed my top and during the dance, the tissue paper fell out. I still do not know who noticed or not, but I wanted to die on stage. I will probably use this in a play one day.
Beef or Chicken?
Kemi is currently attaining her MFA training at one of the top five programs in the US, The American Conservatory Theatre which has alumni like Denzel Washington, Annette Benning, Anika Noni Rose, Benjamin Bratt and one of her own inspirations, Anne Deveare Smith. She hopes to develop the Arts within Uganda and in Africa so that art can be appreciated in its entirety.