British playwright Beau Hopkins wrote The River and the Mountain - the first Ugandan-produced play to deal with the theme of homosexuality. The controversial show, which premiered in Kampala in 2012, led to charges against and eventual deportation of producer David Cecil.
The River and the Mountain will make its US debut – and its first showing outside of Uganda – in a series of staged readings in the DC/Baltimore area, including a free staged reading this Saturday night at Artisphere. I recently spoke with Hopkins about the project and the current political climate in Uganda.
Joanna Castle Miller: Tell me a little about what led you to write this piece.
Beau Hopkins: I met (producer) David Cecil shortly after I arrived in Uganda in April of last year. And he introduced me to a theater company that suggested an interesting topic: the issue of homosexuality. It was something over which a blanket silence had descended that was politically motivated. And in their view, it was important to rupture that silence.
JCM: I’ve read that The River and the Mountain was the “first ever play to be performed in Uganda on the subject of sexuality.” Do you know if that’s accurate?
BH: I don’t know for certain if it’s true. But it probably is.
JCM: So the issue is really not discussed much there at all, even in the arts world?
BH: It’s not invisible. It’s there. But its terms have been captured by camps with very particular agendas. And it’s very difficult to talk about the subject and not, to an extent, lean on the terms which have become the property of these particular camps.
That’s what the play was trying to do: to suggest a way of thinking about this subject and not participate in a very black and white dialogue.
JCM: Do you feel the show, or the fallout from it, has encouraged debate in Uganda?
BH: Yes. Among those people who saw the play, people would come up to me and say they were deeply stirred and made to question what they really thought. And I think part of the reason is not any argument the play is making but simply the experience, in which emotions are simultaneous with thoughts. It’s a very powerful motivator for self-questioning.
JCM: There’s still a Ugandan bill on the table that could punish homosexuality with the death penalty. Do you feel like the public opinion is changing there?
BH: At some point, gay rights will come to Uganda in the same way that they have come in other places where gay rights have been promoted. It’s certainly not inevitable that it will take place in the same form or the same time frame. But some form of legal protection, I think, will definitely happen. And I think that politicians in Uganda know that. It’s just that in Uganda in particular there’s an enormous amount of capital that can be gained through homophobic rhetoric – and I stress that word “rhetoric.”
The bill has been whipped into a fury of popularity, not because people are all against homosexuality, but because they see gay rights advocacy – or at least how gay rights advocacy has been presented in Uganda – as a Western imposition. So what they’re reacting to is not homosexual rights. It’s the underlying narrative of neocolonialism, that the West is still trying to meddle and interfere in Africa.
JCM: Your producer, David Cecil, he was deported just this past month?
BH: Yes, he was deported early February.
JCM: The charge I read was “offending the Ministry of Ethics.”
BH: No, it was “disobedience of a lawful order from a public body.” The Ugandan Media Council sent us a letter requesting – without specifying any legislation that sets out a penalty for not complying – to not put this play on until they had vetted the script.
We’d given them the script a while before that and they’d decided it was going to take a period that would end on the last performance of the play. So to us it seemed it was a ploy.
JCM: What led you to bring the show over here to the States?
BH: I was interested to see how the reading would go down, really, because the play is a Ugandan play. I wrote it, but apart from David every single person involved in the production was Ugandan. The idea was suggested by a Ugandan theater company.
Parts of the Ugandan audiences in Kampala were cheering during homophobic speeches in the play, while other parts of the audience were cheering when they felt a much more tolerant view being expressed. It was for that context that the play was written.
So I’m going to use the reading as a sort of test run to see how it goes down, if the play can survive on its own.
The River and the Mountain will be presented on Saturday March 23, 2013 in the Dome Theatre at Artisphere. Artisphere is located at 1101 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22209. Closest Metro stop: Rosslyn (Orange/Blue line). For more information call 703-875-1100.