PhD student promotes peacebuilding through theater and drama

By Meghan Chua


Graduate student Vincent Ogoti
Graduate student Vincent Ogoti conducts research in peacebuilding and conflict mediation through drama. His play, A Shadow in the Sun, has been performed in Kenya.

When PhD student Vincent Ogoti finished writing his play, A Shadow in the Sun, he approached his former professors at the University of Nairobi in Kenya hoping to publish his work. Through this, the university’s theatre group found out about Ogoti’s play and decided to bring it to the stage.

The University of Nairobi Traveling Theatre performed A Shadow in the Sun in August. The play follows two friends, Sifa and Imani, who make a film together. They face a hurdle when the community disagrees about whether it should be screened. The characters’ conversations about the film raise questions of morality and artistic freedom, bringing to the spotlight the struggle of someone faced with a difficult and personal choice.

During the performance, actors sat alongside audience members, pulling them into the conversations in the story.

“When you have access to a university and the play is performed there, it now becomes more than a work of art. It goes beyond entertainment and it becomes a discourse in the society,” Ogoti said.

Since the performance, Ogoti has been invited to other organizations in Kenya to talk about the play. A Shadow in the Sun is now published, as well.

As a graduate student in the African Cultural Studies department, Ogoti conducts research in peacebuilding and conflict mediation through drama. In his play, the characters hold a community peace circle to talk about their different views and resolve their conflict. Such a scene provides an easy way to talk about a complex issue, Ogoti said.

“When [we] go on stage and show ordinary life, people who are grappling with those difficult issues now, we humanize them. We say to them, here is a family on stage and this is how they are thinking about these things. Do you see any easy solution? Probably not,” he said. “Then you can be more understanding.”

This understanding contributes to what’s known as positive peace, Ogoti added. In peace studies, this contrasts to the simple absence of conflict – known as negative peace.

Ogoti studies how theater groups use drama to unite audiences and create positive peace. He hopes to help them improve these methods through his research.

Theater was created to entertain, and this gives it a certain power among its audiences, Ogoti said.

“People come to that stage and they sit there and then they get moved,” he said. “They are watching people on stage, but they feel that they are really part of that [conversation]. It’s their conversation.”

Ogoti has long held an interest in creative fields. He studied literature as an undergraduate in Nairobi. He earned a master’s degree in peace studies at the University of Notre Dame and has been a Fulbright Scholar at Yale University focused on English and African Studies.

With his practical training, he ran peacebuilding programs throughout Africa, the Middle East, and the U.S. for eight years. Eventually, Ogoti decided he could benefit from more theoretical work behind peacebuilding and literature. He came to UW–Madison to study with professor Luis Madureira.

“I realized I can really get the most of this place,” he said of his first visit to UW–Madison. He saw that some of the books he’d read in his studies were written by scholars here, and thought, “Why not go and join them?”