The capital of Tanzania is dusty and dry and empty half the year. The first president wanted government centered in the geographic heart of the country, but from the look of the place, no one else agreed. Aside from a few statutes scattered around the central business district, the city of Dodoma is nothing but an overgrown market town – major government agencies have long since returned to the coast.
But for three months each year, things change. The place gets jumping. Parliament is in session, and fat rich men arrive from Dar es Salaam in Land Rovers and Mercedes, leaving their families back east and filling the hotels and bars to capacity, drinking and eating and bankrolling the town for another year.
This was my first experience abroad, a month spent in Dodoma with government in session. I was supposed to be filming a promotional video for an African NGO, but my hosts would disappear for days on end, so I spent most of my time drinking in the hotel bar.
It was here that I met Mr. N, a political aide who liked beer almost as much as I did. I was in college at the time, so this was no small feat. We would sit together every night, matching each other bottle for bottle, except that I was drinking East African beer and he refused anything but Heineken, even if it was twice the price and half the size. I asked him why, and he said, "Because I can drink eight of these and not crash the car!"
One night we were three bottles deep, and I started complaining about the war in Iraq. As an American abroad during the second Bush administration this seemed like an easy way to bond with foreigners. I said, "Bush is an idiot," or something to that effect, trenchant criticism, and expected to be met by grunts of agreement. Instead the bar turned silent.
"Bush is a great man," said Mr. N. "He defeated an evil dictator, just as we have done."
He went on to explain the history of Tanzania's invasion of Uganda to topple Idi Amin.
"I was a soldier in this. And spent a night hiding from the Ugandan army in Lake Victoria, treading water with a friend. In the morning my friend was gone, taken by a crocodile."
I couldn't tell if he was joking. Was he joking? He must have been.
"Bush is a great man," he said, "and we love him dearly."
Mr. N started to laugh and grabbed my arm and encouraged me to laugh, but he was not joking.
This exploded my worldview. Mr. N had a voice, his own voice, and not one I could have predicted.
Before I met him, everything I wrote was crap. I take seriously the adage "write what you know," and for a long time I knew nothing. I would write plays set in the suburban parking lots of my mid Atlantic youth with teenagers cursing and drinking beers, listening to songs I liked, and I thought I was saying something unique about America, about the boring realities of post-industrial capitalism, when all I was doing was rewriting the same Eric Bogosian play over and over and over again, amassing rejections letters filled with euphemistic adjectives to describe my work - "muscular," meaning terse and male and predictable.
What was I writing?
The thing I didn't know and had to learn was that "write what you know" also means get out there and know more. Years later I would read J.T. Rogers's 2008 Laura Pels Keynote and find a superb distillation of what I was learning to do. "I realized that as a playwright I had to lift my eyes from my navel and look out into the world. I had to start learning more - much more - so that I could tell stories that dig under the surface of peoples and cultures that seem deeply foreign - even scary - to me and find connections between us. To try and understand what those connections mean…our stories are no longer what is driving the world."
It's in this push to know more that I find the best stories. We want new voices in the theater, and often that translates into a search for writers of diverse backgrounds - race, gender, sexuality, nationality - but it should also push those of us - white, male, American - who sit firmly in the empowered class of theater writers to write new stories and learn about people who don't look like us.
I grew up in Washington, D.C. In ninth grade I walked out of biology class to the hill of my high school on South Dakota Avenue and looked out over the city to try to see the Pentagon smoking. A year later we learned to do the "sniper dance" moving our bodies wildly as we walked from building to building to evade the random sniping of John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo. D.C. was a city at war, and it shaped me, but it took East Africa to show me how to do it, to teach me that, as a writer, not only could I approach stories and characters outside my immediate experience, I ought to. If I fail to render these stories accurately – and inevitably I do; whatever your definition of “accuracy,” the creation of a narrative, the shaping of a fictional story, is filled with silences, and I am only one writer with one perspective – I still have to try.
Mr. N's story of treading water in Lake Victoria, of understanding Bush as a killer of despots, was challenging and specific and fresh, exactly the qualities I admire in the storytelling I love best, and exactly the qualities I hope to cultivate in my own work. I will fail in this effort. And I will fail again. But I will always try.