The River and the Mountain, by British playwright Beau Hopkins, might be the most dangerous play in town. That town is Kampala, Uganda. We all know Ugandan parliament wanted to kill the gays and no one can forget the brutal murder of David Kato, a prominent gay rights activist. We have an entire tag dedicated to Uganda. Uganda is not the safest of places to produce a play about at 29-year-old gay business man. But that’s what The River and the Mountain is about.
The play has been banned from Uganda’s national theatre because some government officials objected to it. David Cecil, one of the producers, told Associated Press that they were even banned from hanging posters there because the play had not been approved by the government. As a result, it is being performed at a little-known theatre in Kampala, the largest city and Uganda’s capital. The protagonist, Samson, is a good man and a gay one. When his mother learns of his homosexuality, she tries to cure it by hiring a pastor, a private dancer and finally a witchdoctor. The play ends with his murder at the hands of his co-workers. Samson is a character that can be approached with empathy: “This could be your brother, your neighbor, your cousin,” said Cecil. And this in a country where homosexuality is illegal and the LGBT community is forced to live in almost absolute silence. The Washington Post highlights that there exists the constant fear of police raids that will shut down the production. Talk about a dangerous game.
Plays have a long history of inciting fear in governments and other powerful people that results in banning – look back as far as Molière and even farther. Molière, a French actor and playwright, wrote Tartuffe in 1664 and that was banned after being performed at Versailles for attacking and exposing the hypocrisy and deceit of the upper classes (aka, the King’s court.) People were afraid it would affect change, and wham, it was gone. And as you look through the history of theatre, you begin to realize that a playwright wasn’t tackling enough daring subject matter if they hadn’t been banned in some theatre somewhere. Theatre-goers have historically been a riotous bunch, so you can see where the fear would come from.
A modern audience member really recognizes the power of work on the stage to change the course of politics and daily life off the stage. Playwrights like Bertolt Brecht based their entire body of work off that power. And shows like The Laramie Project (about the murder of Matthew Shephard, a show that brought the discussion of hate crimes and trials to the nation) or The Vagina Monologues (dedicated to ending violence against vaginas and female-identified people) were written to directly engage with politics and to change the mindset of the culture around them, to explore territory that had not yet been explored. And by the way, both have been banned. And according to this article, banning may have helped the Vagina Monologues reach a wider audience. After all, what’s the first thing that happens when you forbid someone to take an action? All they can think about, all they want to do, is take that action. Banning a play is one way to get said play a lot of publicity. So is The River and the Mountain the next Laramie Project? I don’t know, it’s not available to read or see yet outside of their only production in Kampala (and believe me, I tried.) I’m not sure if the play is good, I’m not sure if the actors are good, but what I’m pretty positive about is that this work could play a part in affecting a slow, steady change in Uganda, if theatre history is to be believed. Someone is certainly worried about it.
So The River and the Mountain is the most dangerous play in town–for the status quo. For the oppressors. For every cog in the governmental machine that wants to kill the gays and for every negative opinion that keeps gays silent and gets them murdered. And if you want to find out where this production may lead, you can go over to their We Fund page and suppor them.
This was a truly fascinating article, especially since I just got back from a two-week trip to Uganda. While I was there we got into a discussion of same-sex marriage and the Ugandan at the table had nothing to say. (I had a lot to say but decided to avoid causing riots/international incidents/shouting matches by keeping my mouth shut.) Later several of the people who work for the organization that put together my trip to Uganda friended me, and upon accepting their friend request I noticed that one of the women who works there is something other than straight. I can’t help but wonder if she figured out that I’m not straight either and that’s why she friended me. And I saw 4 people (in couples) (two men, two women) holding hands. I was not expecting that at all.
Were they obviously couple-y? Because in a lot of countries it’s common for platonic friends to hold hands. It threw me off a bit the first time I went to a developing country (India, in this case, though I’ve since seen it in other parts of the world) and men were walking around all over holding hands with each other.
I also can’t help but wonder if the woman who is something other than straight would have included her sexual preferences on Facebook if she were a man. I rather doubt it.
Lots of people of all genders and biological affections include them on Facebook, right? So, I was wondering if I missed something from your comment, VA? Hets and GLIBTs (gays, lesbians, intersex, bisexuals, transgender) on Facebook (like me) are there to share, and this info is often shared, in my experience.
Some of my confusion I see now as caused by not knowing what country the various people are in. Ugandans probably would not include other than het orientation unless they dare to trust Facebook to keep private “Private”.
Were the “couples” seen in real life, or in “Profile” photos on Facebook? Brave.
One of them (the 2 men) looked like they might be distinctly couple-y. I have no way to know that for sure, though.
Very interesting! and it seems like maybe hopkins, the playwright, is trying to stir the pot a little by having the production in uganda? it’s very brave, for sure, and I just hope it ends with some positive change, and not violence.
Thanks for the great write-up, Ali.
Love the contextualisation re. history of theatre. As Prynce (playing Samson) says: “Theatre is the eye of the community”. For better, not for worse, the current admin. of Uganda’s National Theatre now has a very bruised eye.
It was never our intention to become spokespeople for any cause. We simply wanted to make an exciting, funny, provocative piece of drama. The theme was suggested by three Ugandan actors/actresses (hetero, as far as I know) and when I suggested other themes – corruption, street protests – they kept coming back to sexuality. Why? It is an issue that all sides feel is unresolved here. The Anti-Gay Bill was inspired by international evangelical forces, and then shelved, following international rights pressure. Where was the local dialogue? Even at a national level, the debate was seemingly skewed by the most vociferous, self-interested politicians, pastors and even rights groups (to get funding, publicity etc.) I’m not having a go at any of these people – most believed they were doing the right thing. But that old saying about the grass suffering during an elephant war seems most apt.
What we hope is that this locally and rapidly-produced play stimulates a dialogue on the situation of minority groups in Uganda. Some sympathetic media houses see the attempted suppression of the play as a chance to open a related dialogue on free speech. Great!
The next step is to adapt and improve the play, in preparation for a regional tour. Watch this space.
A little post-script: after Sunday’s illicit and well-attended performance on Eid Day (muslim festival), we had a lively dancehall/hiphop gig on the terrace of the theatre. The MC Ziggy D said: “Many of us have just seen a play about homosexuality – now let’s hear it from the other side!” A rapper strode up and launched into a raucous chorus about ‘dirty battyman’. We laughed, cheered, booed and all got drunk together.
I love this country.
“Uganda charges British producer David Cecil over gay play”
COMO ARRUINAR UNA BANDERA