UPDATE (September 17):
David Cecil, who produced the play "The River and the Mountain", has been arrested and is currently being held in jail without the possibility of bail while awaiting sentencing. His lawyer says that the police has confiscated his British passport.
“I’m gay.” With these words, nervously uttered to his best friend, an ambitious young businessman’s life starts to fall apart. This is the plot of the Ugandan play “The River and the Mountain”, which created a stir in a country where homosexuality is not only illegal, but could soon become punishable by death. Our Observer Okuyo Joel Atiku Prynce, who plays the gay man in the play, tells us of the challenges of taking on this sensitive role.
“The River and the Mountain” was written by Beau Hopkins, a British playwright living in Kampala and directed by a Ugandan woman, Angela Emurwon. It also stars an all-Ugandan cast. This dramatic comedy, which was slated to play at the capital’s National Theatre, ended up having to move to smaller, private venues after the country’s Media Council forbade its performance in public spaces. The country’s ethics minister claimed the play “justified the promotion of homosexuality in Uganda," and added, "We will put pressure on anyone who says this abomination is acceptable.”
Eight performances were held without a hitch. However, once the play ended its run, its producer was charged with a criminal offence for allegedly disobeying the Media Council. For this, he risks two years in prison. When contacted by FRANCE 24, David Cecil – who is also British, and helps run a cultural centre in Kampala – said he had taken the letter addressed to him by the Media Council to be advisory, and did not interpret it as a ban. He also said he felt confident he would win his case, and that he’s currently raising funds to take the show to other countries throughout Africa.
Homosexuality carries a life sentence in Uganda. A proposed law, which is currently in the hands of parliament, would make it punishable by death, and would make those who discuss homosexuality in public run the risk of spending seven years in prison. Despite this climate of fear, Ugandan gay rights groups held their first Gay Pride parade in early August, which went relatively smoothly.
Samson (right) tells his best friend, "Okay, listen, I am a homosexual!" All photos posted to the Facebook page of "The River and the Mountain".
'By playing this role, I could put not only my career, but my life in danger'
Okuyo Joel Atiku Prynce played the lead role of Samson.
When I first read the script, I really wanted to play the character of Olu, who is Samson’s best friend. But the scriptwriter encouraged me to take on the role of Samson. I read through it again, and thought, wow, this will be tough – by playing this role, I could put not only my career, but my life in danger. However, I starting thinking, how long are we going to keep quiet and watch people be mistreated and even sacrificed for their sexual orientation?My character, Samson, is not rejected only by his best friend. His mother tries to "fix" him by taking him to a witch doctor and then to a prostitute. These things really happen in Uganda. I have a lesbian friend whose family organised a “corrective rape” for her, from which she contracted HIV. People turn a blind eye to such horrors.Samson with the prostitute his mother tries to force him to sleep with.“Ugandan society as a whole is not profoundly homophobic”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. 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.I believe that once the taboo is broken, Ugandans will accept that people are people, no matter their differences. And I think that’s where art comes in. When popular musicians first started admitting they were HIV-positive, people became much more accepting of those around them living with HIV. So I don’t think we should wait around until the government wisens up and changes its laws. Our job is to open people’s eyes, until being gay is no longer even an issue, and we can concentrate on the real problems facing Uganda – corruption, terrible infrastructure, and lack of access to health care and education, some of which we also talk about in the play.“Only two people walked out – one who was clearly homophobic, and an activist who thought the play wasn’t activist enough”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. Only two people walked out – one who was clearly homophobic, and an activist who thought the play wasn’t activist enough. But many gay people thanked us, saying that we perfectly captured their experiences. I heard one director said he wouldn’t work with me any more because I took on this role, but I don’t care – I did my job, and I am proud of it.
Post written with France 24 journalist Gaelle Faure.