An outstanding cast brings violent homophobia in Uganda to life in this gripping thriller
Uganda’s Rolling Stone newspaper (no connection to the famous music magazine of the same name) was only published for a little over three months and had a circulation of around 2,000, but its impact on the lives of certain Ugandans was massive.
It came to global prominence when it published a front page article in October 2010: ‘100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak’. It included the names and addresses of people who were known or suspected to be homosexual and encouraged its readers to “hang them”. Unsurprisingly, many of those named were subjected to harassment, extraordinary violence and one, gay rights activist David Kato, was murdered in the months following his “outing” by the newspaper.
English playwright Chris Urch was so fascinated by the story that he started looking into Uganda’s attitudes towards homosexuality and wrote a play imagining the lives of a young man outed by the newspaper and his family. It's been compared to Arthur Miller's The Crucible, given there's a witch-hunt at the centre of both plays, but Urch's play tries to cover significantly more territory.
Dembe (Elijah Williams) is just 18, but has fallen deeply – and secretly – in love with Sam (Damon Manns), a visiting doctor from Ireland whose mother was Ugandan. Dembe and his sister, Wummie (Zufi Emerson) are both studying to go to medical school but their older brother Joe (Mandela Mathia) has recently become their community’s preacher and taken on a patriarchal role in the absence of their father. In his church, he preaches the necessity of wiping out homosexuality. As Sam and Dembe’s relationship deepens, the pair begin to hear more and more stories of violence in their community and relationships quickly fracture.
Needless to say, it’s a heavy subject and a story that’s difficult for a writer who is not Ugandan. Urch has clearly done plenty of research and consultation, but the brutality and trauma on stage can sometimes feel like trauma porn when played before a predominately white audience. But it’s also an eye-opening exploration of intolerance and the lynch mob mentality (in a literal sense) that can take hold of a community.
Urch has said that the rampant homophobia in Uganda is partly down to British colonialism – and it takes root in the brand of religion that colonists and Christian missionaries have left in the nation – but he could make that point clearer in the play itself. A western audience could very easily watch, tut-tutting at the African nation’s homophobia without acknowledging or understanding its own culture’s complicity.
But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t crafted a gripping and confronting play, with finely drawn characters. The shifts in his dialogue can feel a little blunt and at odds with the realism he’s trying to strike, but it’s a neatly constructed work and incredibly lean and precise in its storytelling.
Adam Cook has directed a production that matches the script’s melodrama at every step and is a stunning showcase for its cast of African-Australian performers, including several actors making hugely exciting stage debuts. Isabel Hudson’s stripped-back set and Nate Edmondson’s sound design gently support the action, but it’s the actors who carry the show.
Elijah Williams is appropriately sweet as Dembe and you can feel in your gut just how violently the character has been backed into a corner. He’s a very forceful actor and there are moments where he could take his foot off the accelerator a little, but there’s no denying the power of his total immersion in this character’s horrifying situation.
Damon Manns, making his stage debut, is brilliant and at ease with his role as Sam; you can see why Dembe might fall for him, even though the Irishman has a callous ignorance. Mandela Mathia matches Williams for sheer power and Nancy Denis hits some unexpected comic notes in a brilliantly judged performance as the hypocritical Mama. Zufi Emerson delivers another great debut and has a brilliant connection with Williams’s Dembe, and Henrietta Amevor makes a massive impact in a silent role.
It’s an impressive feat that this production holds together so beautifully given the relative stage inexperience of most of the cast. If there’s just one reason to see it, it’s to witness these actors flexing their muscles in independent theatre before they inevitably go on to bigger things.