Kampala — British producer David Cecil risks two years in jail in Uganda for staging a theatre play about homosexuality, blocked by government.
Two of the lead actors in 'The River & the Mountain' reflect on the controversy that erupted after the performances started in late August. "It was really worth it", says one. "It has only changed things for gay Ugandans for the negative", says the other.
I would do it all again, says Okuyo Joel Atiku 'Prynce' (28) who played Samson, a homosexual factory owner who gets killed by his own workers after they are incited by fiercely conservative pastors. The actor says that "literally 100 percent" of the many reactions he got on his participation in 'The River & the Mountain' were negative. "Even from people from whom I least expected it, like fellow artists and guys at UBC [Uganda's public broadcaster]. 'Are you not yet killed?' someone from UBC asked me." Prynce can't help wondering that if that is how media people react then what about ordinary Ugandans, who mostly heard about the play through those same media?"
Yet, despite all the criticism - or rather because of it - Prynce wouldn't hesitate to go on stage again as Samson. He says he was well aware the play was going to create controversy in Uganda, where homosexuality is largely taboo. But breaking taboos is exactly what art is about, he says. "I partook in the play because of the artistic challenge and to drive debate, to make people realize that gay people are part of society too."
Prynce recognizes that the staging of the play has not generated any substantial debate about homosexuality. But, he insists, breaking down taboos starts with a small step. "Look at apartheid in South Africa. People persisted in their resistance for decades. Ultimately, it paid off."
Whereas Prynce appears emboldened by the controversy surrounding 'The River & the Mountain', Rehema Nanfuka has become sceptical. Nanfuka (26) played a conservative pastor alongside Prynce. "In retrospect", she says, "I question the effectiveness of discussing homosexuality the way we did."
"I had hoped that the play would influence at least some opinions. Yet, of all the people I know, only my mum now slowly starts understanding homosexuality," says the actress. "I am not sure anymore if the people to whom we are preaching, are interested in change at all." Nanfuka even thinks that the theatre play "has only alienated Ugandans further from homosexuals."
She explains that many Ugandans only found out about 'The River & the Mountain' after David Cecil was arrested and local anti-gay voices seized the opportunity to proclaim their popular message that 'The West' is 'exporting' the 'unnatural vice' of homosexuality to Africa. It is the well-known topic that subsequently made the news - not the play's initial message of tolerance, reflection on religion, not even the humor. Uganda's Ethics & Integrity minister Simon Lokodo for instance was quoted as saying that the play "justifies the promotion of homosexuality", drawing approval from a number of Ugandans.
Nanfuka and Prynce both decry the decision of Uganda's Media Council - albeit taken after many performances had taken place - to prohibit 'The River & the Mountain'.
"The Media Council should not be allowed to decide about art," condemns Nanfuka. "Ugandans are denied the opportunity to make up their own minds about homosexuality. And so they end up depending on the media that only pick up on the pastors and politicians who distort the play's true message."
Prynce says he's prepared to ignore the Media Council's decision as well as the warning from Ethics minister Lokodo that the actors in 'The River & the Mountain' may be prosecuted. "Those prohibitions don't find a basis in our constitution. I don't need permission to be free. You can't 'give' me freedom."
Nanfuka won't go so far. "Not so much because I personally want to stay on the safe side but because perhaps we reach more if we leave the issue of homosexuality to the families involved. Then it can't be hijacked by pastors and politicians."