I hope it will be clear, upon completion of this project, that Gambit is interested in a multifaceted rendering of artistic indulgence. That said, Donald Molosi is an example of an artist I hope to become – standing readily at the point where art out-ranges technique or form. I am equally learning that artists can be good friends, irrespective of virtual distances. I am keen to call Donald my friend, especially because he is the quickest, so far in these series, to respond to questions. His energy overwhelmed mine.
Donald Molosi is a US-based, Botswana-born actor-writer. He wrote and performed a number of one-man shows which premiered off-Broadway including the noted Today It’s Me (2010)about the first African to publicly declare he had AIDS, Philly Lutaaya and Blue, Black and White” (2011)which earned him both a Best Actor Award at the Dialogue One Festival and a Best Solo Award off-Broadway. He writes afrocentric poetry and fiction and is currently working on a poetry collection articulating African identity within the continent as well in the Western context.
Donald wants me to come to America, so we can “conquer transatlantically,” together. I agreed.
Be sure to click the links to his stories on this page.
Click here to download a pdf of this interview.
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Is there some sense in thinking that being an artist cannot mean being just one thing? That creativity transcends technique or form?
DONALD MOLOSI: Absolutely. When history’s legendary griots told stories they did not pause to ponder whether they were dancers, singers, actors or performance historians. They just put out the art, and that is what art is...an energy that you never know how it will manifest itself, how it will opt to be birthed. In that way, our obsession with categorization of talents is a loss of some sort.
IDUMA: It’s fascinating that your writing has a life of its own. It morphs across genres. Is this some form of textual justice – to work with a genre that is befitting for an idea? This is considering the fact that your writing ranges from short stories to meditative essays, mostly poems?
MOLOSI: You know, I can sit here and say that my writing is separate from my acting which is separate from my singing, and that is true on some level. But essentially these are all my instruments and as such play different tunes of my politics. The tune, the content always picks its genre, its instrument. I do not decide what will become a play or a poem or a short story. Essentially, I write and perform from a mostly unconscious place and that is perhaps the reason for that lack of predictable categorization for my work.
IDUMA: I think of superimposition in respect to Haiti Can Hold Me, maybe because Sokari Ekine is a wonderful Aunt-writer. Do you have strong Haiti sentiments?
MOLOSI: My politics as a person are global. I have strong sentiments about the world and Haiti is a part of the world. You will see in my writing and acting work that I jump from Haiti to Zimbabwe to England to Uganda...that has been my experience. I am not rooted. Sokari Ekine, a great writer and inspiration, was kind enough to publish my poem about Haiti on BlackLooks and that rippled to its being published in New Internationalist and so forth until it reached Haiti itself and I was absolutely humbled.
IDUMA: And then, you are, of course, not Haitan. Yet there was this feel of being there, right in the middle of all the energy and chaos, the miraculous happenings. I guess every writer must evoke feelings – but how did you manage to do that so well in that poem?
MOLOSI: Thank you for the encouragement. My friends lost their families and possessions to the earthquake, and I was sad and angry about the losses and all the horror that the survivors were enduring. I, of course, wrote about Hotel Montana in the poem and that detail is because one of my friends was frantically updating her Facebook statuses from Massachusetts begging people to rescue her aunt who was stuck in Hotel Montana in Port de France buried under rubble but still texting for help. It is that chaos that pushed that poem out of my heart onto paper. But I did not want to rant. Rather I chose to remember the dead who died in that earthquake in a way that honors them but does not deny reality.
IDUMA: Is there the possibility that a writer can deny reality in a work? Are you aware of that possibility?
MOLOSI: Absolutely. The African’s humanity is something that is a part of reality. And its omission from narratives both written and so successfully propagated by Western media is a denial of reality. I hope, through my work, to counter that idea of writers not being able to look past the spectacle of something like a disorganized African city or Haiti’s economic helplessness to the humanity of the people. I try not deny the reality of a shared humanity in my work, yes.
IDUMA: In the latest Saraba, your story comes off as a direct relationship with the subject that has enraged/ignited us all. This interrogation of what it means to be African, what it does not mean to be African, what must not be considered – do you assume that it must be written of consciously?
MOLOSI: It used to make me livid. Just the idiotic idea that African identity is a monolithic block used to anger me, let alone the condescension that comes with it. But now I just look at that mentality with pity because it is ignorance. Authenticity is such a problematic concept that probably does not exist because of the unthinkable diversity on the continent. So, yes it is a hot issue we should address but only by diversifying stories of what it is to be African, to endow the term, “African” with multiplicity of narrative.
IDUMA: Do you write with a theme in mind?
MOLOSI: I do not write consciously. I usually read things I have written only to find that I do not recognize them. What I will say though is that I am conscious of the shameless damage that art and performance have done to Africa’s humanity over the centuries and more importantly the need for work that humanizes Africa. So, although my work is not themed, I have been consciously publicizing only my Africanist work. Because it is an urgent call.
IDUMA: I was wondering if you would rather write a poem, short story essay, or a film?
MOLOSI: I wish I could answer that, Emmanuel. The narrative picks the format, really. Sometimes I write a 1-minute song about a narrative and that works. Sometimes it needs to be performed constantly for six years and its aura comes from repetition as is the case with one of my one-man shows...I do not write or perform from a conscious place so I cannot answer that.
IDUMA: Is there a bifocal range that being a writer and an actor accords you? Maybe you see from two ‘sides of the coin’?
MOLOSI: Maybe being an actor forces me to articulate emotional beats much more in prose, but I do not know because I do not really analyze my work. My friends who are writers comment on my protagonists in short stories having the “actor’s eye” and taking in details about surroundings in a way that pans like a camera. I suppose there is something there but writing and acting are so separate in my conscious mind. That is why it takes me a while to learn lines, which is a conscious act, from scripts I wrote myself from an unconscious place. But when I perform I go back into the unconscious world. Confused yet?
IDUMA: Have you ever hoped to remain in that unconscious world?
MOLOSI: Absolutely! It is full of lovely silence and flowing thoughts. I work it into my schedule. I have to have two days a week where I turn off the lights and sit in the dark in silence and scribble freely in the dark for a couple of hours. So, even though I cannot -because of practical reasons-live in that world all the time, I visit it often.
IDUMA: You were the first Botswanian who was off Broadway? I recall reading about your award on Facebook and wondering if it was an award first for you or first for Botswana. What did you think?
MOLOSI: I have worked extremely hard toward this passion of performance since I was 10 years old. I will not discredit my own tireless efforts but I do dedicate this honor to the memory of Sir Seretse Khama, our heroic founding President. This show’s success is a first for me and for Botswana, and since the show is a love-letter to Botswana, of course it flies our Botswana flag proudly high.
IDUMA: This would suggest a line of thinking – could a map of a nation turn out to be a map of the world? Yes? And what element, in your musing, would make that transition from the local to the international?
MOLOSI: Whether it be in books or performances, we Africans need to tell our stories in ways that only we can tell our stories. And have them be enthusiastically consumed by our own people first. Only then, once we have legitimated our work on our own terms, will others pay serious attention. The awards I have won internationally are blessings and I am humbly grateful but they were never the goal. The goal was to create work I would be able to justify to my people and ancestors and my consciousness even before someone puts my name in the ballot for an award in a Western country.
IDUMA: One more bit on this. Is it good reasoning to work with the ambition to ‘map the world’ from a locality? It could be a distraction, you know.
MOLOSI: I am not convinced we always need to “go international” as people say. We can legitimate our work ourselves if we set up the right structures and take our views seriously. This overly romantic idea of working abroad is not necessarily as good as it gets for the African artist.
IDUMA: I recall having read Mukoma Ngugi, Akin Ajayi and Tolu Ogunlesi on the subject of structures. In all they did not mention more than ten literary journals within the continent. How do you hope we can build these structures? Do you think you’re playing a role?
MOLOSI: I am reviving my theater company I founded in Botswana to give a platform for good theater in Botswana to be seen by Batswana. I am hoping for more collaboration as a structural choice in how we create work. That is one way of setting up a forum outside of the government structures we mostly rely on in Botswana. Journals, all over Africa, need to actually be good. I think the problem is that although we have many journals and theaters only a few like Farafina, Saraba, Chimurenga, Kwani? and a few more are actually consistently documenting excellent writing. We need even more that are like that so that publishing on the continent has more of a legitimating voice before we even consider being legitimated by winning the Caine Prize or something foreign like that.
IDUMA: You were born in Botswana? Does being out of Botswana feel like being in exile? I use ‘exile’ because I am thinking of necessity, you know, political necessity. But your reason for being out surely isn’t political. The point of this is to question if you ever feel cut off, shut out, too far?
MOLOSI: Botswana is in me, wherever I go and whatever happens to me because I love my country and yes I was born there and went to school there. I have, however, always been an observer wherever I was. Even as a child in my grandmother’s house with family all around, I was watching and observing people and goats and cats so that I can imitate them later. So, I don’t feel far from Botswana when I am geographically away because I am always in my dreamland of sounds and shapes and lovely darkness even when I am in Botswana.
IDUMA: And how does this impart your creative process?
MOLOSI: I suppose that even though I still feel very connected to Botswana, I do struggle not to nostalgically romanticize it in my work. It is not a distance thing. It is a matter of turning an insult into pride. It is the instance of ...this is a true story...it is the instance of someone telling me Botswana is a strange name that sounds like a disease...it is that ignorance I encounter outside Botswana that make mes defensively in love with Botswana even more. It shows in my work, my current show I am touring is a one-man show on Sir Seretse Khama and in it I am proudly celebrating the Father of our Nation.
IDUMA: It is very understandable when you say you had a ‘chronically colonized curriculum.’ We’re a generation that has to continually undefine. Is this a major thrust of your preoccupations?
MOLOSI: Yes, through my Africanist work that forces me to do research, I am constantly filling gaps for myself because I dislike that as a child I was taught about Russian Czars before I learnt about Seretse Khama in just as much detail. I dislike the fact that people in Botswana still take a day off work to watch Prince William marry Kate Middleton, yet our own Botswana Kings and Swati Kings marry all the time and we do not even care. Do minds get more colonized than that? I mean, of course I do not regret having learnt about the Czar and Rasputin and the lovely snow in Russia but those things should never be taught as substitutes for our people’s history in a Botswana school.
IDUMA: I got a hint from the BBC interview about your forthcoming projects. They sounded musically ambitious. What are they again?
MOLOSI: They are not musical at all actually. But my previous project off-Broadway was influenced by music. It is a one-man show I did about musical star Philly Lutaaya, the first prominent Ugandan to declare that he had AIDS in 1988. He became a huge hero saving millions of Africans with his activist music. Right now I am working on the legacy of Hubert Ogunde, the Nigerian theater pioneer. I am also working on an untitled show about spirit mediums who countered colonialism in Zimbabwe, Nehanda and Chaminuka.
IDUMA: I should note that when I used ‘musically ambitious’ I wasn’t referring directly to the musical undertone of your projects. I was merely using music as a metaphor for introspective depth.
MOLOSI: Oh, thank you. I understand. Yes, I am looking forward to engaging with other African stories in different African contexts.
IDUMA: I consider your work trans-African in nature, and in that sense I readily refuse to nationalize you. You permit me?
MOLOSI: I do. Haha. My work is trans-African, yes. African borders are a construct after all, they were drawn to serve European greed. So, yes my work eludes borders on purpose.
IDUMA: You have done mostly one-man plays and short solos. There might be so many reasons for this – cost of production, flexibility, brevity, etc etc. Is brevity in your mind the soul of limb? What attracted you to the form?
MOLOSI: I love subjectivity. I love being able to follow one character’s ups and downs and presenting it undistracted by other characters’ stories. I do other ensemble work on short films and television but they do not get as much as press as my solo performances so that may be why it looks like I do only solo. For example, I was touring with an ensemble in Tanzania for four months last year and I filmed a movie in Kenya and Tanzania last year as well and I was on a TV Show in Vermont last summer but none of these projects blew up in the media as much as the solo shows. But yes I love solo for its subjectivity and the fact that it is difficult to do!
IDUMA: When did acting and writing become a marriageable possibility?
MOLOSI: My fiction writing is definitely not married to my acting. My writing that is specifically for performance howeve is. As they say necessity is the mother of invention so if no one is going to write me a script about Hubert Ogunde, I am going to write it myself. That is the attitude that made me write more solo work.
IDUMA: Maybe what you did with Seretse Khama’s life is akin to rehumanizing politics. I get these ideas, from wherever, about how politics must be faced with an interpersonal face, portrayed without the borders of public and private. Because I think that’s how we are going to make sense of its art. That’s silly?
MOLOSI: You are right. It is that attempt to chronicle the humanity of the man despite politics. I want to take him from the statue to an identifiable face and voice in time and space. It is a humanized story, not hero-worship, because humans find inspiration in human stories.
IDUMA: How has the politics of all the places you’ve lived borne on your writing, your creative process? And these are highly politicized places – Morocco, USA, United Kingdom, etc.
MOLOSI: Botswana is wealthy and stable, even more so in the African context. Growing up I only saw beggars when we visited South Africa because Botswana did not have any visible people who were that poor. That complacent unperturbed mood was not good for my inspiration as an artist. I need to be ruffled by something. So, all these places give me that vicarious ruffle. From Kuwait to Morocco to Zambia to Pakistan I have found new struggles and passions of people that move me to articulate in art with a certain grit.
IDUMA: Who are the artists that have influenced you most? Musicians? Painters? Writers? Are there those of this generation of writers/artists who move as older ones do?
MOLOSI: My friends are tired of hearing about my endless respect for the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Binyavanga Wainaina. I think they are the writers who showed me the possibility of artistically engaging with the 21st century through an African lens sparkling with intelligence. I obviously look up to people like John Kani and Hubert Ogunde who paved the way for my generation.
IDUMA: What books are you currently reading? What films are you currently seeing?
MOLOSI: I just finished Brian Chikwava’s sublime book called Harare North. Right now I am reading One Day I Will Write About This Place by the wonderful Binyavanga Wainaina for the second time. Filmwise, I don’t really watch films much but I recently saw Mirror Boy and I was happy to see Nollywood in a high-cost production that fuses African storytelling with aesthetic success.
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