KAMPALA, Uganda – A play that revolves around the turbulent life of a gay man in Uganda is being staged in the East African nation, where three years ago a parliamentarian wrote a bill seeking the death penalty for homosexuals.
This is the first time a play exploring homosexuality is being performed in Uganda, and the British playwright and producers say they hope their work can help "normalize the gay character" in this conservative country.
The play, titled "The River and the Mountain," premiered last Friday at a little-known theater in the capital, Kampala, amid fears the police would raid the venue and stop production. Government officials had objected to the play and blocked it from being staged at Uganda's national theater.
David Cecil, one of the play's producers, said on Monday that they were stopped from hanging posters at the national theater by officials who said the play's performance had not been authorized by the government.
Edwin Mukalazi, a production manager at the national theater, said the play had become a "sensitive issue," and that its performance would not be seen as a promotion of Uganda's arts and culture.
He said that the play is "something that does not stand for our mandate," although it may eventually be performed at the national theater if an official government censor clears it.
Pepe Julian Onziema, a prominent gay activist in Uganda, praised the staging of the play here as "revolutionary," saying it could help reduce the stigma suffered by homosexuals.
"I think it's time that we opened our minds to the things happening in our midst," Onziema said on Monday.
Most Ugandan homosexuals are forced to lead secret lives because of discriminatory laws and the stigma attached to homosexuality. In 2009 a lawmaker with the ruling party wrote a bill proposing the death penalty for what he called "aggravated homosexuality," claiming that Western homosexuals were luring poor children with promises of money and a better life. The bill has been condemned by many world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama.
Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, where gay activists frequently complain of harassment by the police and where Christian clerics urge their gay parishioners to repent and be cured of their homosexuality. A popular tabloid frequently uses derogatory words to describe homosexuals. Last year a Ugandan gay activist was killed in Kampala days after being outed by a tabloid that called for gays to be hanged.
The new play, written by Beau Hopkins, seems to suggest that the frenzy swirling around homosexuality in Uganda is tragic and comic at once. The main character is a 29-year-old corporate businessman whose mother desperately wants him to get married. The woman pays a Christian pastor to "cure" her son after she learns of his homosexuality. When the cleric fails to achieve her objective, she wants her money back. Then she enlists the services of a private dancer and, finally, a witchdoctor. She never succeeds in her mission.
At his workplace, the gay character's employees are so shocked to learn he is gay that they wonder aloud, "But he is a good man." In the end their new hatred for their boss overpowers any affection they previously felt for him, and the play ends as they swing machetes, baying for his blood.
"This could be your brother, your neighbor, your cousin," said Cecil, the producer.
He said the play was not a "magic pill" against gay prejudice in Uganda, although he hoped it would help enlighten some about the complex ways in which sex, politics and religion intersect.
"It's a play about understanding versus hatred," he said.
The play's directors plan to have it performed in other East African countries.