Africa

High drama as Uganda cracks down on ‘obnoxious’ gay-rights play

By Simon Allison 20 September 2012

To stage a play about a gay man in a country where homosexuality is illegal takes some courage. It is that courage which put British Producer David Cecil in a Ugandan maximum security prison, having upset the authorities who don’t take kindly to opposition or gay rights. By SIMON ALLISON.

Good art, they say, should be daring. It should be cutting edge. It should be dangerous. Think about it: the world’s most famous artists no longer paint pretty portraits and serene gardens of lilies. Now they pickle whole sharks in formaldehyde (Damien Hirst) or operate undercover defacing public property with subversive graffiti (Banksy). Others dress up in meat (Lady Gaga) or tacitly encourage teenagers into drunken threesomes (Kate Perry).

These days, with few taboos remaining to us, it’s hard to shock. Another group of housewives taking their clothes off for charity? Yawn. Another picture of the president’s penis? God (and the ANC) forbid.

The attempts to grab the general public’s attention are getting increasingly desperate. Look at this feature on a group of “audacious” street artists in Berlin, whose revolutionary idea is to move their street art out of the street and into buildings, creating a “daring oxymoron”. Graffiti-ing walls in Berlin is a dangerous business, apparently. It can get you arrested. Still, I’m pretty sure this defeats the whole point of street art, which once indoors looks a lot less subversive and a lot more like a normal, run-of-the-mill exhibition. Oxymoronic indeed.

Enter, from stage left of the political spectrum, David Cecil. Cecil is a British theatrical producer, and has recently learned a thing or two about making genuinely dangerous and subversive art. He’s also had a bit of time to ponder these lessons from the dubious comforts of a cell in the Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Kampala, Uganda, where Cecil spent the weekend before being released on bail.

Cecil is charged with violating Uganda’s media laws by secretly staging a play in violation of a directive from that country’s Media Council (which had banned the play pending further review). If found guilty, he could be jailed for up to two years. He’s probably guilty.

At the centre of this cultural, political and diplomatic storm is a simple piece of art – a play. Entitled The River and the Mountains, the play explores what happens to the friendship of two Ugandan men when one of them reveals that he is gay. Their relationship sours, and the gay man’s life quickly unravels. The play ends with him being hacked to death by an angry, homophobic mob, starkly illustrating the very real dangers of being homosexual in Uganda, a country notorious for its homophobic legislation and politicians.

“Because I myself am straight, I needed to do some research to make sure I understood what it’s like to live as a gay man here in Uganda,” said Okuyo Joel Atiku Prynce, the actor who played the lead role, speaking to France24. “I spoke to some friends who are gay – all of whom are closeted. They are forced to suffer in silence. There is a huge taboo surrounding sex in general, and homosexuality in particular, in this country. The church preaches a lot of hate against gay people, and the government has made it worse by proposing the death penalty for homosexuals. However, this hatred is pushed by extremists, since Ugandan society as a whole is not profoundly homophobic. I found out while doing my research that most people, when I asked them about their views on homosexuality, did not really care if someone they knew was gay as long as they kept it to themselves.”

Not that this is always an option. Take the murder of David Kato, which made international headlines last January. Kato was beaten to death with a hammer not long after he had been outed as gay on the front page of a (now-defunct) local newspaper. The paper listed 100 Ugandans they thought were gay, with the chilling caption: “Hang them”.

This was also the Ugandan government’s plan, until an international outcry forced them to drop the death penalty provision in their proposed anti-homosexuality legislation. Instead, repeat homosexual acts will be punished with life in jail – hardly an improvement. In protest, the hacker group Anonymous recently hacked the prime minister’s website, putting up messages from the prime minister in which he apologises to all homosexuals in Uganda and gives his support to a recent gay pride march. (See this wonderful account in the New Yorker of the 100-strong group of exceptionally brave individuals who celebrated homosexuality in Entebbe in August.)

In this threatening environment, it was hardly surprising that the state Media Council was quick to suspend performances of The River and the Mountain, which they found to be “obnoxious” and “implicitly promotes a deification of such persons” (such persons being gay persons, of course). The cast ignored the directive, which Cecil described as advisory rather than prescriptive – a point which will form the basis of his legal defence. In total, there were eight performances and they seemed to go down well. “The reaction to the play makes me think we’re headed in the right direction, as we had a full house every night. Many of the people who came were from the neighbourhood we were playing in, and didn’t even know that the play would touch on homosexuality. It was a great success,” said Prynce.

And then the authorities intervened, arresting Cecil last week Friday. Cecil, as the producer, was deemed to be the primary organiser of the productions and therefore most responsible. His bail was set at 500,000 Ugandan Shillings (about R1,600) and his passport revoked, so he can’t go anywhere until the trial is resolved.

Regardless of what you think of Cecil’s political views, his courage and the cast’s must be lauded. All of them knew that by taking on such a controversial topic they would be risking censure, arrest and even assault. This is art at its most daring and audacious.

Compare this now to another controversial bit of “art”, (the air quotes earned by the film’s shockingly poor production quality and acting). The trailer for the Innocence of Muslims also has a point to make, and has certainly had real-world consequences; at least a dozen deaths are said to have been sparked by its release. Is this daring? Is this cutting-edge? Perhaps. The courage of its creators is however compromised by the fact that we’re still not sure who exactly is behind the film, or what its purpose was; and by the fact that it’s consequences have been visited on people in other countries far removed from the making of the film. It’s one thing to take personal risks for your art, or to make a political statement; it’s quite another to risk someone else’s life.

It won’t go quite that far for David Cecil. Even if found guilty, the maximum term for his offence is two years. Uganda will also be under immense diplomatic pressure to defuse the situation; a suspended sentence and deportation is a more likely outcome as far as he is concerned.

There are no such neat fixes for Uganda’s homosexuals, who are stuck in a country that has codified its homophobia. If Cecil’s play goes even a little way in promoting gay rights in the country, or tempering some of the hostility, he will likely consider his sentence a price worth paying. DM

Read more:

  • “‘I play a gay man in Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal,’” on France24 
  • “Exploring social issues through daring theatre,” on Uganda’s Daily Monitor 

Photo: Members of religious groups campaigning against homosexuality hold placards during a rally in Kampala August 21, 2007. REUTERS/James Akena 

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