Uganda’s “gay play” stirs debate, but was it worth it?

Two actors diverge on play's impact

Jack Rodolico By Jack Rodolico

Members of Uganda’s gay community lead a choir during a memorial service for David Kato on his first death anniversary in Kampala, January 26, 2012. Kato, one of the country’s most visible gay campaigners, was beaten to death with a hammer at his home. He had been publicly outed on the cover of a tabloid magazine under the banner “Hang Them.” (Reuters/Edward Echwalu)

A controversial play that focuses on the life and untimely death of a gay man caused a big stir in Uganda this summer. Now a few of the play’s actors reflect on whether or not the controversy was worth it. One says yes, the other, no.

It’s not easy to be gay in Uganda. Homosexuality is banned under laws leftover from British colonial times. But in 2009, Parliament introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which aimed to put homosexuals to death. The bill likened homosexuals to pedophiles — a claim that has been repeatedly proven false — and was fueled by politicians and preachers who claimed homosexuality was being exported by activists from the West. The bill was never passed, but, as Latitude News has reported, life has been harder for gay Ugandans ever since.

The play did what art frequently does: publicized a controversial topic to promote a public dialogue. It certainly accomplished that goal, even though it was shut down by the government shortly after it opened.

“I would do it all again,” Okuyo Atiku “Prynce” tells Radio Netherlands Worldwide. In “The River and the Mountain,” Prynce played Samson, a gay factory owner who is murdered by his employees after they are incited by pastors. “I partook in the play because of the artistic challenge and to drive debate,” says Prynce, “to make people realize that gay people are part of society too.”

But Rehema Nanfuka, an actress who played a pastor in the short-lived play, says the show “has only alienated Ugandans further from homosexuals.”

“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 Nanfuka. “I am not sure anymore if the people to whom we are preaching, are interested in change at all.”

Adding fuel to the controversy, British producer David Cecil was arrested in Kampala last month. He was released on bail after a weekend in prison and could still face two years in prison.

Cecil had submitted the play’s script to Uganda’s Media Council, according to Uganda’s Daily Monitor.

“Court records further show that three days later, the Council wrote back to the organisers informing them that it had received their script and that it was due to be considered. However, the Council warned the organisers that in the meantime, they should not show the play in public. The Council states that it was shocked to learn that the organisers had secretly staged the play in various public places.”

The report continues, in a frankly biased tone, to say the Council branded the play “obnoxious”; the Monitor says the play “implicitly promotes a deification of [homosexuals].”

Cecil is not the first westerner to cause a stir in Uganda around this issue. American evangelicals have become famous — or infamous, depending on how you see it — for stirring up anti-gay sentiment in Uganda. One is even being sued in U.S. court for his controversial teachings in Uganda.

Weeks after the Media Council canned the play, Prynce admits to Radio Netherlands Worldwide “the play has not generated any substantial debate about homosexuality. But, he insists, breaking down taboos starts with a small step.”

While both Prynce and Nanfuka are outraged by the Media Council’s decision, both are determined to fight for the cause through differing means. Prynce is willing to advocate publicy, despite threats of prosecution from Uganda’s Ethics Minister.

Meanwhile, Nanfuka feels public outcry is inevitably hijacked by preachers and other anti-gay activists, transforming the message into something it is not.