“The River and the Mountain” had a short, stunted stage life in Uganda. After a handful of shows, the Minister of Ethics shut down the play, which depicts a gay factory manager who is murdered by his employees after they are incited by a pastor’s anti-gay rhetoric.
But the Ugandan play could find a new home in the United States, if a Nebraska-based actress can get it off the ground.
The play’s second life would be a vindication for Uganda’s gay community, which has been increasingly marginalized since the 2009 introduction of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in parliament. Among other draconian measures, the bill proposed to put homosexuals to death, hence its renaming by the outside world as the “Kill the Gays Bill.”
While homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, and even though the bill was never passed, the bill has stirred a frenzied public debate, with homosexuals being branded as dangerous serial pedophiles. Latitude News has reported extensively on this controversy, with a particular focus on one American pastor who is being sued in U.S. court for his alleged efforts to persecute gay Ugandans. (Check out the related stories below.)
The Ugandan play’s American sponsor tells Latitude News she is staging the play to inspire “as many people as possible to Google ‘kill the gays bill in Uganda’ just to see what’s going on.”
What’s going on?
Around the time the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was proposed, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interviewed MP David Bahati, the bill’s original sponsor. Bahati claimed that gays from the West were infiltrating Ugandan schools and molesting children to make them gay: he didn’t bother to offer evidence in support of his claims. Borden saw that interview from her home in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she is an actress and adjunct professor of theater at the University of Nebraska.
“I could not believe that this was something we were not seeing everyday in the news,” Borden recollects.
The issue of gay rights in Uganda was still close to her heart when “The River and the Mountain” made international headlines last summer because David Cecil, the play’s British producer, was jailed in Uganda for his role in staging it. Cecil was quickly released from prison, and the play has not been produced in Uganda since.
While watching the story unfold on cable news in Nebraska, Borden turned to her husband and said: “Those are my people. I have to find them. They’re mine.”
The play’s protagonist is Samson, a middle-manager at a cooking oil company. It begins as a story about corruption within the company, and Samson’s efforts to protect the company’s honest workers. But it takes an abrupt turn when, emboldened by his success at work and a few drinks, Samson admits to his best friend that he is gay.
“The crisis of the play,” says Borden, “is when a white evangelist makes it known that all the problems facing Uganda — the corruption, the poverty, the overwhelming political problems — all of these things are because of gay people.”
This part of the play’s narrative arc is as much fact as fiction. Latitude News has reported extensively on the role American evangelicals have played in stirring up anti-gay rhetoric prior to the proposal of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
Borden reached out to the play’s actors and production staff through Facebook. She says she was surprised when, after a few emails, she was corresponding with the play’s producer.
“I could not believe I was talking to David Cecil,” she says. “For people who produce theater, he’s a rock star. I mean, he went to jail for producing a play.”
Before long Borden had backing from both Cecil and the play’s British writer Beau Hopkins to stage a reading in Lincoln, Nebraska. The reading took place in January, and now Borden is trying to raise money through Kickstarter to fund readings in Baltimore and Washington DC.
Ironically, when it hits stages on the east coast, mostly American actors will bring this uniquely Ugandan play to life. The casting call is aimed at Africans living in the U.S. as well as African Americans, although Okuyo Atiku Prynce, the actor who played Samson in Uganda, will travel to the U.S. to reprise the role.
Publicizing Uganda’s “proto-Holocast”
Borden calls the political pressure to suppress homosexuality in Uganda a “proto-Holocast,” and hopes to make the “Kill the Gays Bill” a household name in the U.S. She may have help from an unwanted source: Uganda’s parliament is scheduled to bring the bill up once again in February. Sponsors claim the death penalty clause has been removed, but the bill’s current draft has not yet been made public.
“This has all the potential earmarks of a holocaust,” says Borden. “If we make enough people believe their lives will improve when we eliminate the minority, even moral people will accept it.”
Thus far, Uganda’s gay rights community is not feeling the pressure of a Holocast; but civil society has become far less civil, and one prominent gay rights activist was brutally murdered in his home in 2011.
Regardless of whether she hits her fundraising goal on Kickstarter, Borden says the show will go on.
“I personally feel that there is no choice. This show has to happen. We are all committed to it. Everyone involved with the Ugandan production will know that we heard it and we get it. It won’t ever die. You can’t take away a performance from people who have seen it.”