Tuesday, November 6, 2012

‘Just Me, You and the Silence’ at the Old Vic, 4th November 2012

‘Just Me, You and the Silence’ by Judy Adong is a play with noble aims, and one which sets its sights high.  It's about LGBT rights in Uganda, one of the most cripplingly repressive places  in the world to be gay or lesbian.  Homosexual activity, both male and female, is illegal, and gays and lesbians must live with routine discrimination and legal restrictions.  There is also an underlying risk of physical harassment; newspapers such as ‘Red Pepper’ and ‘Rolling Stone’ have published lists of names and addresses of gay Ugandans while calling for them to executed.  One of the people named, David Kato, a prominent LGBT rights and advocacy officer for SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda) was beaten to death with a hammer in his home in January 2011.  On top of all this misery, there's been repeated attempts to introduce legislation popularly known as the “Kill the Gays bill”, which calls for the death penalty for anyone committing ‘the offence of aggravated homosexuality’.

This is not a very bright and breezy situation, to say the least.  Imagine what it is like to live in constant fear of your safety, never knowing who to trust and where members of your government are actively seeking to implement legislation that might result in you standing,  rope resting around your shoulders, black hood on head, hearing the muffled sounds of people around you and then the soft click of the trapdoor opening and sudden weightlessness and then?  The best you could hope for is they kill you cleanly.  So when I went out on a chilly November night to see a play about LGBT issues in Uganda I wasn’t expecting a very cheery night out.

Not cool guys!
And yet I laughed my head off nearly all the way through it.  It’s a consciously funny play from start to finish, and ridiculously entertaining.  This was in many ways a huge relief.  I try to keep informed as to what’s going on in the African LGBT community, and I care deeply about the issues underlying situations like those currently happening in Uganda.  So before seeing the play I was worrying what I’d write about it if it was awful, or even if it was just crushingly miserable throughout.  Adding to this mild sense of dread was that this wasn’t even a full production.  It was a benefit reading, which means uncostumed actors standing in a row with lecterns in front of them and reading from scripts, as far as I could tell totally unrehearsed.  So if a play has flaws, they're only going to be exaggerated. 

Fortunately Adong clearly knows what the hell she’s doing.  Vile though it is, much of the language, rhetoric and logic behind the “Kill the Gays Bill” is ridiculous enough to stray into the realm of the darkly funny.  If you want to prick somebody’s self-importance, then making them into a figure of fun is one of the more effective ways of doing it.  Here, Adong deftly confronts the supporters of these monstrous bills with the logical consequences of their actions. 

It's horrifying.  But language like this has got to be ripe for satire.
‘Just Me, You and the Silence’ tells the story of a Ugandan MP named Jacob Obina (seemingly based on David Bahati MP) and his family.  Jacob and his wife Grace are aspirational social climbers and Jacob sees introducing a strict anti-homosexuality bill as his ticket to a life of luxury and fame.  His cohorts in this are Pastor Ddumba (based on Martin Ssempa) and Mary Rose who run a church, and Buntu Muntu (an analogue for Simon Lokodo), a government minister.  All see this bill as a way to propel them on a wave of popular sentiment forward in life.  Less enthusiastic are Jacob's two sons: Giden just wants to be left alone to get on with a budding music career, and Mathias wants to escape to New York to attend university. 

What drives the narrative is that Mathias is secretly gay.  He’s  torn between loyalty to his mother and father, who are wholly reliant on the passing of the anti-gay laws for financial security, and his activist friends Victoria and Thomas who are underground LGBT political activists. 

If this unlikely situation were played seriously it would feel pretty contrived and cloying.  But Adong recognises the farcical elements inherent to the situation, and almost every twist and turn the story takes is milked for laughs.  I thought it was interesting that those trying to enact the anti-gay legislation are not necessarily portrayed as cackling, cartoon villains.  They merely see this bill as the most expedient way to get what they want out of life.  Jacob in particular is a likeable and funny man, which makes it very jarring when he slips into rabidly anti-gay language.  This humanising process is a clever way to approach the situation.   An aggressive front-on attack would be totally justified and very cathartic but also unlikely to change anyone’s mind.  But while the play never shirks from presenting a powerful and convincing argument it does so with a relatively light touch, and with good humour.

In fact, I was so taken aback by how funny the play was and how readily the audience embraced it as a comedy that for a while I felt a bit uneasy.  We are laughing at situations that, while they may sound utterly ridiculous to the ears of a London theatre audience, are deadly serious to a Ugandan gay person desperately frightened of being outed.  

Judy Adong
The genesis production was when Adong was confronted by the discrepancy between what Ugandan politicians and media said gay people were like, and her personal experience of meeting and working a gay man:
“This experience made me see that the value of a human being is not measured by his or her sexuality.  It also made me realise that one day I could wake up and find someone I knew and loved being put to the noose and I wouldn’t be able to do anything.  Like so many Ugandans, I had been in denial that anyone I knew could be gay.” – Judy Adong
The notion of the homosexual as the other, the outsider or the interloper seems to run right through the anti-gay propaganda put forward by the church and state.  Gay people are painted as un- African and as trying to actively convert people’s children to the ‘gay cause’.  We see the characters in this play actively engaging in this othering, explaining in a wickedly funny sequence how to ‘spot a gay man’ by his clothes or behaviour.  All the while, the father in the play unknowingly holds up his gay son Mathias as a shining example of African manhood.   We have it demonstrated to us in the clearest possible way the consequences of assuming that it's other people’s children or family members who are gay.  It's this message that stands out over all else, and the play asks: how would you feel if it was your son or daughter whose neck was in the noose?

Its important to consider why this notion of the destructive other in society has such a strong pull in Ugandan society.  Uganda is a former British colony, gaining independence from Britain in 1962 and like many former colonies is fiercely (and in my opinion rightly) protective of its right to self-governance.  Interference from the West is regarded with intense suspicion, and financial aid often comes with strings attached.  Gay rights are commonly viewed as a prime example of Western cultural imperialism; at best an example of an overly secular too-liberal West, and at worst an active attempt to poison the well of African masculinity.  This allows anti-gay campaigners to seductively frame their arguments as an integral part of Ugandan or pan-African nationalism. 

Adong exposes the hypocrisy of this argument through the character of Pastor Ddumba.  He is shown as being in the thrall of a US megachurch who keep him on a tight leash through their funding of his church.  Pastor Ddumba is generally fairly authoritative throughout most of the play, so it’s pretty funny to see him become so obsequious and grovelling whenever he has to talk to his US financier over the phone.  This relationship seems to be based on the real-life links between the Nevada Canyon Ridge megachurch, and Martin Ssempa, who Ddumba parodies.  The argument goes that the US evangelical right sees the war on homosexuality in the US as pretty much a lost cause, and are far happier to fight a proxy war on homosexuality in Africa.  So, we see him going from decrying foreign interference in one scene, to frantically licking the boot of the US evangelicals in the next.  What’s nice is that the play never preaches this to us, but any thinking person watching it can draw their own conclusions pretty easily.  The most persuasive thinker we know, after all, is ourselves.

From the Ugandan Gay Pride Parade (!!) in 2012 - these are very brave people.
Considering that these actors who had very little (if any) rehearsal time, the quality of the performances was excellent.  Deserving particular praise is David Gyasi as Jacob, and Arnold Oceng as his son Giden.  Both of them very quickly defined their characters not just as well-rounded, but also very as likeable people.  Even from behind a lectern and with a script in their hands they gave us a peek into the physicality of these characters, which makes the play that much funnier and the characters more relatable.  I had feared that a read through of a play would be a dry, academic exercise, but they breathed life into the story even with very limited resources.

Despite this being a very fast-moving, entertaining play there are a few slow patches.  At various points the play lapses into fantasy sequences where we get a visualisation of a particular character’s fantasy life.  So for example we see Grace, Jacob’s wife dreaming of being interviewed as First Lady and treated as an iconic political and cultural figure.  It’s a nice way of getting into the character’s heads and helping us understand their motivations, but these scenes bring the narrative to a screeching halt, and ultimately we're being shown  things we should have already worked out for ourselves.  The only other criticism I’d make is that throughout the play we have someone to the side of the stage reading aloud the stage directions.  This was fine, but in the final moments of the play he read out a direction for a minute’s silence.  I can’t see any reason why they couldn’t actually do the minute’s silence in the read through rather than simply tell us about it. Not having any silence before the end totally undercut the drama and profundity of the last line of the play, which is a shame.

But these are minor criticisms and this was a wonderful night.  Judy Adong has provided gay rights campaigners in Uganda with a potent weapon in their fight against homophobia.  The play is funny and entertaining while also having a white-hot core of anger and righteousness.  Her ambition is to perform this play in KampalaUganda and I firmly believe that one day she will achieve her dream.  As this work amply demonstrates, it is not homosexuality that tears the fabric of society apart; it is bigotry, divisiveness and ignorance. 

It’s a relief to be able to highly recommend this play not just because I wholeheartedly believe in its message, but because it’s also highly insightful and hilarious satire with excellent characterisation.

Many thanks to the wonderful people at the Old Vic who donated their beautiful theatre for the reading and to the actors and production staff who gave up their free time to work unpaid for our entertainment.  If anyone would like to know more about this issue please check out the Kaleidoscope Trust.  They organised this night and are an excellent organisation that does sterling and brave work.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “‘Just Me, You and the Silence’ at the Old Vic, 4th November 2012”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights