“Imagine you are a teenager who is abducted in the middle of the night and forced to become a child soldier or sex slave. Imagine trying to sleep, as your friends go missing everyday, wondering if you will be next. Now, imagine many of the people you know and love will soon die and most of the world has no idea what is happening to you…
Teenagers like Scovia and 13 others don’t have to imagine, this is their life. Having escaped their rebel abductors, these teens and their families are now living together in camps for internally displaced persons (IDP.)
Their stories of suffering and resilience have never been told…until now.”
–Staging Hope synopsis
While Melissa Fitzgerald C’87 is most often recognized for her work as Carol on NBC’s political drama The West Wing, her more recent role has reached people who have never even seen a television. A longtime social activist, Fitzgerald helped create the documentary Staging Hope: Acts of Peace in Northern Uganda. The film will screen tonight as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival.
Staging Hope follows Fitzgerald’s team of actors, playwrights and activists as they help 14 Ugandan teens transform their traumatic personal experiences into works of live theater. Addressing the themes of reconciliation, peace-building and HIV/AIDS, volunteers helped the teens create two plays based on their own lives. “I think in an area where there’s no television and very little access to information, [theater] is a great way to share information,” Fitzgerald says. But at the same time, “a play’s gotta be good or people aren’t going to watch it. We knew we had to deliver some good theater.”
A former English major and Penn Singers alumna, Fitzgerald recently made time to speak about her work in Uganda and her new documentary. Here is a condensed version of our conversation.
From what I’ve heard, social activism has been a big part of your life for quite a while. Tell me about Voices in Harmony.
I co-founded Voices in Harmony in 1995 with several other actors. We knew we wanted to do something in the community in Los Angeles, and [acting] is what we knew how to do. We also felt there was a unique opportunity for storytelling in theater to build bridges because creating a play is such a community activity. We wanted to do something to bring people from different parts of the city together and we wanted to reach economically disadvantaged at-risk teens.
We paired actor mentors with teen mentees, and each team created a short play based on the theme racism/prejudice/intolerance. We had professional writers come in and help write their pieces, then we had professional directors come in and direct them. We put it all together into several evenings of theater and performed around Los Angeles.
It was going to be a one-off, but it was such a wonderful experience for all of us that we just kept going.
How did that lead to your work in Africa?
We started Voices in Harmony long before any of us had success as actors. We were mostly broke and unemployed. We had the passion to do it, the belief that something we were doing was valuable and good, and I think we had the energy of youth. Then I got the West Wing, and continued to do Voices in Harmony. I also started doing some volunteer work during the summers, when the show was on hiatus. I went to South Africa to volunteer with an AIDS organization and in 2006, the International Medical Corps gave me several options to volunteer with them. I was really disturbed by the whole issue of child soldiering—I think it really struck a chord with me because of my work with teenagers—so I chose Northern Uganda. I felt like that was the place I was supposed to go.
And what was it like there?
They let me go around with their field team to several internally displaced persons camps and I was disturbed by what I saw there. A thousand people were dying each week in these camps. There was a cholera outbreak while I was there. The camps were overcrowded and unsanitary. When we were leaving one of the camps, a man came up to us and said, ‘Please don’t let us die in this horrible place. Please tell the people in America what is happening to us here.” Since then, that has been my mission.
How did that mission evolve into Staging Hope?
When I went to Uganda, I had taken my video camera with me. I turned my tapes over to the International Medical Corps and said, ‘Maybe we can make something with this.’ Martin Sheen offered to narrate, and it became [the short film] Hope Not Lost. I never set out to make a movie, but it won a few awards and had a great impact on my family and friends.
I thought, ‘If this little home video camera I brought can make a movie with this much impact, imagine what a well-done movie could do.’ I thought, ‘What if I actually did set out to make a movie? What if I did assemble a team of talented filmmakers? What a huge impact that could have.’
I talked to my friend Katy Fox [G’08] who’s a wonderful producer. Both of us were committed to not just taking stories out [of Uganda] but also to putting something in as well. Voices in Harmony in Uganda seemed like a natural fit for that.
Why did you think a theatre program could help Ugandan teens?
I think that being able to tell your story is an incredibly valuable thing. I think it helps us to make sense of the world. I think when the world has gone mad, as it has in a war territory, it’s even more important to have an opportunity to make sense of the world. These teenagers were able to tell their community what they felt was important. How else, besides through theater, can you share your story and explore big issues in front of a thousand people at a time.
What sort of changes did you see in the teens themselves?
They thrived working on this theater program. We felt strongly that this was the beginning for these teens—an opportunity for them to do more after we left. We asked them what they wanted to do after we left and they said, ‘We want to teach the other children what we learned.’ They’re still teaching other children the theater program that we taught them, and they’re touring the plays that we created together, and more plays that they’ve created since we left.
What are you hoping people take away from this film?
I hope people will be moved by what they saw, and that they will be motivated and inspired to take action and make a change there. There are a lot of actions to take right now, many of them listed on our What You Can Do page. My hope is that we will find distribution for our film, that large audiences will get the opportunity to see it, and that they will be moved to take action because there’s so much that we can do. Right now is such a critical time. I think there really can be lasting peace in central Africa, and that we can be part of that.