Theatre

Uganda censors drop the curtain on play about homosexuality

Pete Jones

A play that highlights the difficulties of being gay in Uganda has been forced to abandon its run in the capital, Kampala.

Ugandan police officers wait at the entrance of the Esella Country Hotel after police raided a gay rights workshop which was taking place in the hotel in Kampala. (AFP)

The River and the Mountain, which tells the story of a young businessman coming to terms with being gay in a climate of homophobia, was due to be performed at the National Theatre of Uganda last week before regulators intervened. Some shows went ahead at two smaller venues, but the National Theatre refused to stage the scheduled performances.

"We are all disappointed but not surprised that we could not perform at the National Theatre," said the actor Okuyo Joel Atiku Prynce, who plays the gay character at the centre of the story. "What is surprising is the fact that we have received no clear reason. No one is taking responsibility for this decision."

He said the play was not intended to promote a specific agenda, but rather to add to public debate.

"We're actors, not activists," he said. "The play is there to inspire discussion in the community and to get a reaction from people. We want it to open up a dialogue."

Uganda introduced an anti-homosexuality Bill to Parliament in October 2009. The Bill, which has not yet been voted on, proposes severe penalties, including death, for those found guilty of having same-sex relationships. In January 2011 the gay rights activist David Kato was murdered shortly after a local newspaper published images of him and other gay people under a headline urging readers: "Hang them."

The River and the Mountain has provoked controversy not only for its sympathetic portrayal of gay people, but also because it suggests that much of the anger and hatred has been whipped up by politicians and religious leaders for their own purposes.

Its British playwright, Beau Hopkins, said he had hoped the play would promote discussion about homosexuality. 

"The aim of the play was for it to be discussed by those who saw it and in the local media," Hopkins said. "The local media seem to have agreed not to talk about it, which is disappointing. We're also particularly disappointed that it won't be staged at the National Theatre, as there it would have reached more Ugandans."

The production was stopped by the regulating Media Council, which told producers a day before it was to open that the script needed to be cleared by authorities – not normally a requirement for theatrical productions. But the council's Pius Mwinganisa told the Guardian this was standard practice and not politically motivated. He said authorisation for The River and the Mountain remained "under consideration".

Christopher Senyonjo, a bishop who was thrown out of the Church of Uganda in March 2006 in part because of his vocal support for the gay community, criticised the decision. 

"This play helps people understand that gay people should be understood rather than rejected out of hand," he said. "My church wanted me to condemn homosexuals but I cannot condemn people who are just the way they were born." – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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