As Dan Ssuuna rode the subway recently, a stranger's question reminded him of how important his work is:
"Are you African or are you black?" a woman asked innocently.
Since moving to Northern Virginia from his native Uganda as a teenager, Ssuuna has gotten used to inquiries from people who don't realize that, though separated by time and distance, American blacks and Africans are one in the same.
"You get those kinds of questions," Ssuuna says. "I've found that the misunderstandings keep people on the dark side. It keeps them with their prejudices and ideas about people from different cultures."
Ssuuna, 25, hopes to educate audiences about African history and culture with his one-man stage show, which he performs June 30 at the Harmony Hall Regional Center. The production combines singing, dancing and storytelling, disciplines that Ssuuna considers the jewels of his native culture. The show includes traditional dance and music from Uganda and parts of East Africa. Toward the end, Ssuuna invites audience members to come on stage to try the instruments and dances themselves.
"The songs I do have meaning," says Ssuuna, who has performed his show at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley and in Tuscaloosa, Ala., among other places. "It's like what we do back home."
Back home in Mubende in Western Uganda and in the suburbs of Uganda's capital city, Kampala, Ssuuna started dancing and singing at age 5.
Life was good there, Ssuuna says. It was not too cold and not too hot. Rather than having running water in the house, the family took frequent trips to a river nearby. In an emergency, word of mouth was much more effective than the telephones that his family has grown accustomed to in the United States.
"If somebody had a problem, word would travel around a lot faster than you would expect," he says. "Three or four villages would be running there to help."
Most important, everything in the village was accomplished collectively. Individual needs were secondary to the good of the village, or for the good of the family, he says.
In Uganda, Ssuuna was instilled with a reverence for his elders that has become integral to his performances. To keep his act fresh, he squeezes whatever knowledge he can out of his grandparents and elderly Africans he meets in the United States.
"My elders have been my main inspiration," he says.
Ssuuna moved to the United States in 1988 and graduated from high school in Fairfax. Although he's been living here for more than half his life, he continues to be amazed by the level of ignorance about African traditions.
"There is so much that people don't know about the African culture," Ssuuna says. He notes that people get much of their information about Africa from television, which doesn't provide a complete picture.
"A lot of what people see is true, but it's only about 5 percent of the true Africa," he says.
In addition to touring with his show, Ssuuna is working toward a business degree at Northern Virginia Community College. But as long as he keeps getting naive questions from strangers, he vows to keep performing.
"I want to stay in the performing business," Ssuuna says. "Not only do I love it, but people really appreciate what they learn. . . . I'm not just performing. I'm also educating."
Ssuuna performs at 10 and 11:30 a.m. June 30 at the John Addison Concert Hall at Harmony Hall Regional Center, 10701 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington. Tickets are $3 and may be purchased by calling 301-292-2839 or TTY 301-292-8203.