For the first time, a play on homosexuality is being staged in Uganda, a country that has proposed an Anti-Homosexuality Bill. With 'The River and the Mountain', the theatre-makers hope to make their audience reflect. “In Ugandan society, we hide so many things. Why not talk about it?”, says one of the actors.
By Mark Schenkel, Kampala
Twenty-eight-year-old award-winning Okuyo Joel Atiku Prynce is the first-ever actor to play a homosexual on stage in Uganda. He has already received numerous criticisms about this latest move in his career, among others, being accused of “being funded by gay lobby groups”. But that does not deter him.
“I am not into gay advocacy. Although with this play, we do want to make people understand that we are all human,” he says. “We should not judge, segregate, harm or kill others.”
Uganda is a country where gays and same-sex relationships are far from being accepted, and are regularly condemned by conservative pastors and politicians.
'The River and the Mountain' premiered on 18 August in a little-known cultural centre in Kampala called Tilapia and runs until Sunday, 26 August. It is a collaboration between a group of local actors, Oxford-educated poet Beau Hopkins, who wrote the script, and Tilapia manager David Cecil.
The play will “hopefully get people to talk about homosexuality, which already helps to reduce the stigma,” says 24-year-old Phiona Katushabe, one of the creators.
Avoiding ideological debate
The play has not created the sort of public stir that may have been expected given its controversial subject. Those involved in the production believe it is partially because it has deliberately been kept low-key. This has not been out of fear for repercussions, but “to avoid being dragged into the ideological debate with, on one side, Uganda’s vocal pastors and, on the other, the international liberal human rights organizations,” says Katushabe. “All we want is our audience to make up its own mind.”
But, apparently, it did cause a sense of uneasiness at the National Theatre, Kampala’s main venue. At the last minute, the theatre backed away from hosting the play, after having agreed to do so. The actors were told a “clearance” from Uganda’s Media Council was not issued. “The refusal of National Theatre only motivated me further,” says Rehema Nanfuka, a well-known 26-year-old actress and radio-presenter who is in the cast.
'The River and the Mountain' revolves around Samson (played by Prynce), a young man who is focused on his career in a cooking oil factory, much to the despair of his mother. All she wants for him is a suitable wife.
Samson is forced to ‘cure’ himself of his homosexuality by undergoing treatment with a pastor, a witch doctor and a Ssenga – a ‘sex aunt’ who in traditional Buganda culture initiates young girls. All attempts fail because Samson says that being homosexual is “how I was born.”
In the end, after having had his coming-out, Samson is killed by his own factory workers with machetes. But it is his girlfriend Aidah (played by Aidah Nalubowa) who brings hope to the story because she accepts Samson’s the way he is.
Aidah represents the river mentioned in the play's title, which stands for openness, for being connected to the open seas that historically brought new influences. The mountain reference indexes the secluded, withdrawn people, scared of the unknown.
Katushabe admits that some of her "anti-gay friends who have seen the play now show more understanding”. Nanfuka says the same goes for her. “I never had any problem with gay people, but I used to ask myself why they should feel the need to come out," she recalls. "Now, I feel they should. In Ugandan society, we hide so many things. Why not talk about it?”
'The River and the Mountain' is attracting several dozen spectators every evening, including many Western expatriates. So far, only two members of the public have walked out of the performance. The first one was reportedly an anti-gay individual. The second was someone who was pro-gay and apparently too affected by Samson’s fate.
This weekend's last two performances will be at MishMash, an uptown cultural venue mainly visited by expatriates. Are the organizers not afraid they will give conservative Ugandans one more reason to believe that gay people are stooges of ultra-liberal Westerners with a secret "gay agenda"? Prynce’s response: “That argument is being used against us anyway. I am not afraid. This play will help change Ugandan society.”