This past Wednesday, Staff Writer Ava Slocum attended an online reading of Asiimwe Deborah Kawe’s play Appointment with gOD, presented as part of the 2021 Columbia University School of the Arts International Play Reading Festival through the Lenfest Center for the Arts.
Theater may stay on Zoom for some time to come, but plays can still inform us about situations all around the world. That was the theme behind Wednesday evening’s online performance, which kicked off Columbia University School of the Arts’s 2021 International Play Reading Festival.
Appointment with gOD, by Ugandan playwright Asiimwe Deborah Kawe, follows a group of visa applicants in an unspecified developing country as they wait in line at the United States Embassy, sharing their own stories and trading tips and advice for obtaining a sought-after travel visa.
Kawe, Zoom-ing in from Kampala, Uganda, for the online reading, introduced her play by explaining the religious metaphor interspersed throughout. The characters call the immigration agents “gODs.” And the embassy, in her interpretation, becomes a sort of church: “The unseen presence of a powerful being, a being that holds visa applicants’ futures in their hands, makes the place seem holy, sacred, and set apart.”
Appointment with gOD begins with a medley of voices. The characters share their thoughts out loud as they wait in line at the embassy, nervously checking their documents, adjusting their clothes, making sure they have enough money. The first couple of lines, which sounded like a spoken word poem, did a wonderful job of setting up the premise of the play and hinting at the tension to come, although the combination of the choral format and the unchanging screen of the audio-only Zoom webinar made it hard to tell at first which of the characters was speaking.
The play, as it goes on, gradually reveals the people’s individual stories. One woman hopes to go to the U.S. to attend a cousin’s wedding, another is invited to a conference of “young achievers.” Each character’s interview with the godly, anonymous embassy employees deftly pointed out the hypocrisy present at every step of the visa process.
Kakye, the woman applying to travel to the conference, is posed a series of increasingly ridiculous questions by the immigration agent. The “gOD” interviewing her forces her to somehow prove that she won’t stay in the United States illegally, since her lack of a steady income and similar “ties” to her home country supposedly make her a “high-risk” visa applicant.
Poignant and empathetic, Appointment with gOD highlights the biased and fraught process of obtaining a U.S. travel visa. It also evokes a sense of the systemic inequality involved, through its depiction of the differences in treatment for the people native to the country and the Americans who have moved there. Kakye’s monologue after her visa is denied for the third time, performed with righteous outrage by Petrina Ampeire, emphasizes the absurdity of the situation. The Americans at the embassy are allowed to come to her country, she points out, without having to go through a confusing and demeaning process to prove that they have ties to their own country.
The play’s depiction of those who do succeed in getting visas, mostly men who can demonstrate that they are married and have high-paying jobs, provides another interesting angle regarding the gender bias involved. The embassy automatically assumes that an unmarried woman is trying to immigrate illegally and marry a U.S. citizen.
In some opening remarks before the reading began, playwright, screenwriter, and Associate Professor of Theatre David Henry Hwang stated that, “with nationalism rising” in the U.S., “theater can play an invaluable role to help us understand and embrace people from around the world.” Kawe’s play certainly raises awareness of the obstacles that visa applicants encounter, reminding us to always be mindful of the struggles facing people worldwide.
This reading of Appointment with gOD was directed by Nana Dakin ’18, with sound design by Caroline Eng. The next two plays in the 2021 International Play Reading Festival will be presented on Zoom on Wednesday, October 13, and Wednesday, October 20, at 6:30 pm.
Presentation snapshot via Zoom event screenshot