‘Spirit of Uganda’ to celebrate culture, music at upcoming Penn Charter show

 The 'Spirit of Uganda' comes to William Penn Charter on March 12. (Courtesy of Empower African Children)

The 'Spirit of Uganda' comes to William Penn Charter on March 12. (Courtesy of Empower African Children)

“Spirit of Uganda,” an African youth performance troupe, will make a stop at William Penn Charter School next week on its North American tour. It has been facing some controversy along the way, however.

As some Americans react to draconian anti-gay laws recently enacted by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, angry tweets and headlines abound.

And in late February, a spokesman for the University of Massachusetts, which plans to host the “Spirit of Uganda” show on March 5, acknowledged that faculty members and local patrons considered protesting the show, out of worries that attending would signify support for Museveni’s policies.

Positivity, not politics

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Chestnut Hill resident Carol Horne Penn, who volunteers as the Philadelphia coordinator for “Spirit of Uganda,” sees things differently.

The show, which operates under the umbrella of nonprofit Empower African Children, has nothing to do with politics and is a great way for Philly families to gain exposure to a vibrant culture, Penn said.

“These kids don’t represent politics. These kids represent everything that’s positive about children in Africa,” she added.

Beyond the show

Alexis Hefley, who first traveled to Uganda for her work with AIDS orphans there in 1993, founded Empower African Children in 2006 after ten years at the helm of Uganda Children’s Charity Foundation.

Hefley produces the “Spirit of Uganda” show with the help of its founding artistic director, Peter Kasule, a Kampala native who lost his own parents to AIDS.

Penn explained that beyond supporting the costs of the show, all the money from “Spirit of Uganda” tickets go towards scholarships Empower African Children provides to Ugandan orphans to to them with their education and boarding house needs.

The group also sponsors promising youngsters after graduation to ensure a solid transition to college, vocational school or career-life.

Touring coast to coast

The “Spirit of Uganda” tour comes to the U.S. every other year. This year, on a tour that began in January and will wrap up on March 22, youth ages eight to 18 are crossing the U.S. by motor coach.

After landing in Dallas, they traveled to Redwood City, Calif. for their first show, and have since performed in a variety of prestigious venues and universities in Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida before turning to the Mid-Atlantic.

Penn acknowledged that so many miles and shows far away from home is a challenge, but that the kids enjoy the chance to become “world citizen[s],” seeing the U.S. “in a way most Americans don’t even see it.”

‘Not that different’

“I was surprised at how poised and comfortable these young people were, who were traveling so far from home,” continued Penn, who works by day as the deputy director of Community Legal Services.

In 2012, she hosted the troupe for dinner alongside her own teenage daughters, when the show was in town for a performance at the Annenberg. “It was very clear to my kids and very clear to these kids that they’re not that different.”

“I believe in that way of making change,” Penn added of what drew her to Hefley’s mission and method. “It’s not judgmental…It doesn’t look down on the kids, and it’s about empowering them to be the best that they can be.”

Uganda onstage

Philly residents who go to the March 12 event at Penn Charter will see a colorful show of drums, dance, music and song. “It draws you in, it makes you excited, people are on their feet,” Penn said of the experience, which also looks to bring awareness to the ravages of war and AIDS in Uganda. 

“These children are here because they want to do well, they want to make a change in their lives,” Penn says to anyone who conflates Ugandan politics with the country’s broader culture.

In the United States or anywhere else, the laws or politics of any one country don’t always reflect its individuals, “nor does it mean that people don’t want to do well and succeed and grow and be better. And that’s what these kids represent.”

Spirit of Uganda,” will be coming to William Penn Charter School’s Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts for one show at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 12. Tickets are $30-$40 (half-price for students and kids) and can be purchased in advance or at the door.

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