Douglas Dubois Sebamala
Nonfiction by Nate Freeman: The Laramie Project in Uganda
Updated: Jan 22, 2021
THE LARAMIE PROJECT IN UGANDA
Notes from the Director
I’m sitting in my apartment in Kampala, Uganda. It’s exactly one week before the opening night of a production of The Laramie Project that I’m directing, and the sounds of rolling thunder mix with the boom of tear gas cannons that are being fired somewhere down the hillside. My first thought is: We don’t have a backup plan for the show if it rains.
The tear gas no longer surprises me. In February, it was a commonplace weapon the police used against citizens who were protesting Yoweri Museveni’s 30-year reign and the rigged presidential election that granted him another five years in power. From my vantage point on the hillside near the main hospital, I could see the smoke rising from the vicinity of Makerere University. Almost three months later, on a newly-minted national holiday created to celebrate Museveni’s inauguration, nothing has changed.
The government has shut down Facebook and other social media, which is making it difficult to communicate with my cast. With my tenuous Internet connection, I’m struggling to download a VPN that will allow me to bypass the blockade. At least I don’t have to worry about sending out a rehearsal schedule—with only six more rehearsals before the show, everyone knows that we will meet at 6 P.M., the usual time. Really, I’m mostly concerned that I’m missing out on the hilarious photos from rehearsal that one of the assistant directors posts to our WhatsApp group.
Once the rain lets up, I head down the hill to meet my set and costume designer. Fighter jets fly ominously low over my head and the streets are filled with onlookers. The inaugural festivities are clearly designed to telegraph a message about who retains power in Uganda. If it weren’t for the show of force, however, it would be just an average day in Kampala—or, in many ways, anywhere.
I find that Westerners who have not spent much time in sub-Saharan Africa tend to have an overly exotic view of life here, thinking perhaps that Ugandans spend their days dodging lions in some sort of Heart-of-Darkness fight for survival. Kampala is a cosmopolitan place that, despite the huge discrepancies between social classes that plague many cities, is quite comfortable and friendly. I have my favorite cafes and restaurants, an array of social options for an evening out, and a daily routine that I’ve developed over the past four months while working for the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), a Ugandan organization that offers free legal aid services to LGBT people and sex workers.
Kampala has its unique challenges, of course—the terrible traffic, the ubiquitous motorcycles called boda bodas that zip past the blocked cars and have exactly the safety record that you would expect, the occasional collapse of a shoddily-constructed building. Once a boda boda nearly ran me down and I stepped off the road only to plunge two feet into an open sewer. I knew that working on LGBT rights in Uganda would be messy, although I didn’t expect to be quite literally up to my knees in shit.
But the main difference is only sometimes apparent. It manifests on days like today: the reminder that the government retains control, that it will wield its power against its citizens, that it decides whose voice will be heard and whose voice will be silenced. This happens in the United States too, but not usually with such an obvious and jarring display.
I hurry through the crowds as Museveni’s jets thunder past overhead. I don’t have time for these assertions of totalitarian bravado. I need to figure out how to turn three of our actors into angels for a scene in Act Three.
* * *
Uganda isn’t exactly the setting that first comes to mind as a backdrop for The Laramie Project, a play written by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project in response to the October 1998 murder of a gay university student named Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. The country is notorious for being anti-
gay, in part due to the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014. The Act broadened the criminalization of same-sex relationships in Uganda by introducing a life sentence for same-sex acts (the original version of the bill prescribed the death penalty) and by criminalizing any advocacy for LGBT rights. Through the efforts of a coalition of lawyers at HRAPF and other organizations, the Act was overturned later that year on procedural grounds.
Same-sex relationships are still criminalized, however, under the already-existing prohibition against “unnatural offences”—a relic of British colonial rule. The Brits granted Uganda its independence in 1962, but they left behind a version of the same anti-sodomy laws that were once used to convict Oscar Wilde.
Despite these laws and the country’s reputation, Uganda is not, as Laramie grandmother Marge Murray would say, “the hellhole of the earth”. There are many signs for hope, including a robust community of LGBT Ugandans who are fighting to turn their homeland into a more accepting place. There are over two dozen registered LGBT organizations performing advocacy work and there’s even a club that goes queer one night a week that regularly attracts hundreds of members of the LGBT community. True, the organizations have to register as companies rather than NGOs, often with such non-threatening names as Frank & Candy, and the government is trying to crack down on them with new permitting requirements; nevertheless, it’s a start.
Hopeful signs aside though, life is no walk in the park for LGBT Ugandans. Arrests are still routine, even if most people are eventually released without charge. There is little or no support for victims of police violence or domestic abuse, and members of the trans community especially have a hard time finding safe medical providers and accessing basic services. One lesbian Ugandan I met described her life here as a state of constant vigilance. She generally feels secure at home or out with friends, but she fears for her safety whenever she is in the spaces in between. “I’m just waiting for the day when I no longer have to hold my breath.”
* * *
In many ways, Uganda in 2016 is reminiscent of Wyoming in 1998. Most Ugandans who believe that homosexuality is immoral also believe that they don’t know any gay people—certainly not anyone in their own family, except for maybe that one uncle whom no one talks about. It’s “live and let live,” which of course only works as a philosophy so long as that living follows certain norms.
Matthew Shepard’s killing has its own parallel here: the murder of LGBT activist David Kato in January 2011. Kato actively fought against the introduction of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, and in October 2010 his picture appeared among the 100 photos of people who were accused of being homosexual by the Ugandan tabloid newspaper Rolling Stone. The tag next to the pictures read: “Hang Them.” A few months later, Kato was murdered in his home.
Like Matthew’s murderer Aaron McKinney, Kato’s killer Sydney Nsubuga Enoch was a young man; and like Aaron, Enoch used the gay panic argument in his defense. He claimed that Kato, who was offering him shelter in his home, tried to seduce him—at which point he grabbed a hammer and bludgeoned Kato to death. Developments after Matthew’s case revealed that Aaron likely had had sex with men before, and it’s similarly alleged that Enoch was a male sex worker. The most violent homophobia often stems from the most internalized. Whereas Aaron received two life sentences, Enoch was sentenced to 30 years.
Kato’s funeral, like Matthew’s, occurred on a stormy day. At one point a gust of wind catapulted a tent into the sky. The funeral attracted the attention of fire-breathing preachers who used the occasion to rant against the terrors of homosexuality. “The prayer we pray is for the total destruction of your group!” cried one priest—at which point Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, one of Uganda’s most well-known lesbian activists, walked over and grabbed the priest’s microphone and wouldn’t let go. Like Romaine Patterson, the 21-year-old lesbian who responded to Fred Phelps’s protest in Laramie by surrounding him with people dressed as angels, Kasha was ready to stand toe to toe with anyone.
And like Father Roger Schmidt, the Catholic priest who didn’t hesitate to organize a vigil for Matthew despite what his superiors might say, Uganda also has voices of healing and support from its faith community. Bishop Christopher Senyonjo has preached for years that LGBT Ugandans are all children of God, and he was present at Kato’s funeral to offer his blessing at the gravesite.
* * *
I got the idea to stage the show after attending a performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in February. As one of the actresses launched into “the little coochie snorcher that could” monologue about a lesbian relationship, I thought: If no one’s been arrested for this, then maybe there are other plays we could pull off here. I chatted with a few activists who agreed that they wanted to see more LGBT-focused productions and I sent off a proposal to an institution whose rooftop I thought might provide a possible performance space.
It was a tough sell. The last play produced in Uganda with an explicitly gay theme, The River and th
e Mountain, landed the director in jail for several days. He was then deported back to Britain. I tried to reassure people that our production was different: “The other director tried to stage his play at the National Theatre. We’re not directly confronting the government.” Still, the threat was there—and it was a risk that we did not all bear equally. “If shit hits the fan,” explained one of the actors, “you just get deported. I lose my job and go to jail.”
By remaining somewhat coy about the play’s content and by signing documents stating that I was fully responsible for that content, I eventually secured the performance venue. I spoke with other lawyers at HRAPF, who all agreed that the production was in compliance with current Ugandan law; but it remained unclear how the government would react if it found out what was going on. As a muzungu—a white foreigner—I thought the risk to my safety would be somewhat lessened. Perhaps I was being naïve. After all, this was a government that regularly used tear gas against its citizens.
* * *
Through an old college theater friend, I got in touch with Mr. Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project. They agreed to waive the royalties for the performance and offered any support necessary. Mr. Kaufman asked me how many people we expected to attend the show. I replied that we had limited the three performances to 100 audience members each.
“Is that for security purposes?” he asked.
“No, we’re just worried about the structural integrity of the building. We don’t want the roof to collapse.”
Possible engineering flaws aren’t the only unique challenges we’ve faced. The actress playing the Judge missed the second week of rehearsal due to bilharzia, a parasitic snail contracted by swimming in contaminated water that can wreak havoc if left untreated. Another actor thought he had TB, but he was being overly dramatic: the doctor said it was just malaria. We’ve grown accustomed to power outages, holding one rehearsal entirely with the aid of three headlamps. Our rehearsal space is the living room of one of our assistant directors. “You’re blocking Romaine!” I shout at the actor playing Matt Galloway, who looks at me with an expression that says, “Where exactly do you want me to go?”
I’ve asked a lot of my cast. Due to delays in renting the performance location, our rehearsal schedule has been ridiculously compressed. Opening night is exactly one month after the date of our first read-through. Further exacerbating the time crunch is the fact that the actors play multiple characters and are either onstage or sitting on benches along the side throughout the performance—there’s no time to decompress or study the script. Perhaps the most difficult stress, especially for the Ugandan actors, is the fear of what might happen.
One actor felt overwhelmed one evening as he contemplated worst-case scenarios. “How will I support my family if I lose my job?” he wondered. We sat on the stoop outside the assistant director’s apartment as rehearsal continued inside. “I don’t know if everyone in the show really understands how scary this is, how alone it can feel to be LGBT in Uganda.”
I nodded. I also couldn’t know exactly what it felt like to be Ugandan, but I did have the experience of being a gay teenager in a one-stoplight town in the Midwest in the nineties. Matthew Shepard was only five years older than me. His death was terrifying: I was sixteen and barely able to acknowledge that I was gay, even to myself. The Internet was in its infancy, most of the gay characters in movies were dying of AIDS, and I had never talked to anyone about homosexuality. It felt like getting tied to a fence was exactly what would happen to me if I came out to the wrong person, or found myself in the wrong situation.
“You’re not alone,” I told the actor. “But I know it can feel like that. I can’t actually promise that it gets better. But it did for me, and I think it will for you too. Go get some food and take the night off.”
Despite their worries and stresses, the cast members have been committed and incredibly brave. Five days before opening night, the Ugandan actor playing Rulon Stacey arrives with his fingernails painted purple. I raise an eyebrow. “I keep my hands in my pockets when I’m on the streets,” he responds. I tell him that I think his nails are fabulous and that he’s also quite courageous. I ask what scares him and he admits that he’s somewhat terrified of buttons.
“Buttons?” I repeat, laughing.
“Yeah, especially when they’re not attached to clothing. I don’t know, they’re just creepy.”
The American actor playing Dennis Shepard nods his head. “I have a weird fear of sunglasses tan lines. They hit people so unexpectedly.”
* * *
We’ve almost finished building the set. Construction has only lasted a day, a feat which is nothing short of a miracle given the inclement weather and the several flights of stairs we had to negotiate with all the wood. It’s a miracle we desperately need, because there are only four more nights before we open. Each remaining rehearsal requires the successful addition of a new element: props, costumes, lights, and sound.
With the exception of one power drill, the stage has been created entirely by hand. “Shouldn’t we move those exposed wires out of the puddle?” asks the actor playing Father Roger Schmidt. Our carpenter shrugs, loops the wires over a chair, and goes back to drilling. The rest of us are working on the fence.
“I don’t think it’s stable enough,” worries the same actor.
I quickly calculate the likelihood that the fence will fall apart. Given the compressed schedule, I’m in triage mode. Nothing short of a fire or active bleeding can really phase me. “We just need it to be visually pleasing,” I reply. “We don’t need it to stop any actual bucks from running across a field.”
In the end, the fence is sturdy enough to sit on. Another possible disaster that’s turned out better than anyone expected. We’re all a little giddy from the abrupt transition from impossible to accomplished, and we snap some photos of the finished stage as the wide wooden planks turn golden in the setting sun.
* * *
“Found it!” I cry triumphantly to our sound guy as we turn a corner in a crowded downtown market and see the stall selling Kitenge fabric that I had visited the day before. It’s two days before the show and I’m still shopping for the angel wings. My work colleague had taken me to the market the previous afternoon, but I hadn’t been ready to make the purchase.
“I’ll come back tomorrow if we decide we want it,” I told her.
“You’ll never find this place again,” she laughed.
“You want to bet?”
It’s a good thing she doubted me, because she was right—there was no way I would have returned if I hadn’t sharpened my senses in response to the direct challenge to my pride. The indoor market was a dark labyrinth of tight corridors, staircases, and a rush of merchants squeezing through the passages with their wares.
I should have bought everything the day before, but I was nervous. In just about every production of The Laramie Project, the angels appear with some sort of flowing white wings. Colorful Kitenge cloth would be a bold departure. I wanted to acknowledge that, yes, this show was being staged in Uganda; but I didn’t want to send the message: “Muzungu director makes stereotypical nod towards Africa.”
The play’s Ugandan sound technician agreed to return to the market with me and give me his advice. I also asked the Ugandan members of the cast what they thought.
“It depends on the fabric,” said the actress playing Romaine Patterson.
I thought her comment was symbolic of the entire play. After all, what right did I have as an outsider to stage such a controversial production? Was it fair of me to foster a dialogue about LGBT issues when, unlike many members of the community in Uganda, I had the option of leaving?
It depends on the production.
I’m still not certain that staging this show is the right thing to do, but what I love about The Laramie Project is that it doesn’t preach. It presents a variety of opinions based on the interviews that the theater group conducted in Laramie after Matthew’s death. Although the trajectory of the play takes a progressive stance, the script isn’t disrespectful of opposing viewpoints—I think the people expressing those views would feel that their opinions have been fairly represented. The members of the audience can react to the array of ideas as they see fit.
Perhaps our ultimate responsibility as a cast is simply to tell this story well. As Father Roger Schmidt says, “I will trust that if you write a play of this, that you say it right. You need to do your best to say it correct.”
Or as one of my actors wrote me, “I trust you Nate and I know I’m not alone in this.”
I hope I can live up to that trust.
Sometimes I feel like most of my adult life is a series of faking things with as much confidence as possible. I do the best I can, I look for all the right signs, I try to use my accumulated wisdom and experience—but at some point, I’m mostly just praying that when I turn the corner I’ll find what I’m looking for.
The sound technician holds up a piece of yellow-patterned fabric and contrasts it with two rolls containing red and blue designs. He nods.
* * *
The lights arrive that night at rehearsal and I call for a blackout during the third act.
The stage goes dark except for two floor lights illuminating downstage left and downstage right. I turn to the lighting operator. “Can we get the floor lights out?”
He shakes his head. “I can’t turn them off.”
I’m confused. “You mean they’re not connected to the board? They’re on a manual switch?”
He tries to explain. “No, I mean I can turn them off. But then we can’t turn them back on.”
I’m extremely puzzled now.
“The problem is they won’t go back to plain white. They’ll start rotating through colors instead. We would have to reprogram them.”
“Well how long does that take?”
“At least five minutes.”
Good grief. We can’t do that during the middle of an act. We’re about to start the monologue in which Mathew’s father decides not to seek the death penalty against his son’s murderer and I have visions of the climactic scene turning into some sort of disco.
“Well what am I supposed to do? Put boards in front of the floor lights?”
Five minutes later, I’m standing in front of the cast. “These two boards,” I explain, “will be used whenever we need a blackout.”
The penultimate rehearsal is testing my memory of being part of tech crew in my high school drama department. I’ve hastily drawn a light plot and written out light cues for our lighting guy. The sound system won’t arrive until the dress rehearsal the next evening.
The cast seems to be falling apart. The actor playing Jedadiah Schultz is not present due to a work emergency. The actress playing Catherine Connolly has just left because she isn’t feeling well. The actor playing Philip Dubois is a bit flustered by the lights and can’t remember when he enters, when he exits, or most of the lines that come in between. Strangely, he seems to remember everyone else’s lines instead.
I’d be less stressed if we had time to iron out the kinks, but we’re on a strict schedule: we need to leave the building by 9:30 P.M.. I assume when we’re given this ultimatum that this is the time when the security guards leave, and that perhaps we could simply pay them to stay a little longer. Instead, it turns out that the building has an alarm that can only be disarmed by one person, who has agreed to come to the shows but not the rehearsals. So we’re on a crunch.
Several friends have been emailing me, slightly concerned about my safety. “Are you going to get arrested?” one writes.
“Extremely unlikely,” I respond. We’ve taken so many precautions that my biggest concern is that the audience won’t be able to figure out where the production is. “At any rate, a deportation order might be the best thing for my health right now. Maybe I’d finally get a full night’s sleep.”
* * *
It’s the day before the show. I’m racing through Kampala on the back of a boda boda trying to beat the rain, or at least prevent it from damaging the angel wings. I need the tailor to make some minor adjustments to the shoulder seams. The skies open up before I arrive and I stuff everything under my shirt.
The tailor gives me a side eye when I pull them out, a small puddle spreading out from my shoes as I stand in her shop.
“We can iron them,” she decides.
They’ve turned out beautifully. The actor playing Rulon Stacey, who has now painted his fingernails black, twirls around in the blue pair once I get them to rehearsal. The actress playing Catherine Connolly is feeling better and the actor playing Philip Dubois has spent the afternoon working on his lines with the actor playing Matt Galloway. For the first time in our life as a cast, all thirteen actors are present.
Things are looking up, despite a new bilharzia diagnosis: this time, it’s the actress playing Tiffany Edwards. She tested positive in the morning but doesn’t want to take the medication yet, as it can have fairly debilitating reactions over the first few days. “I’ll wait until Sunday,” she tells me.
“You need to prioritize your health,” I reply. “We’ll figure it out.”
“I’ve never prepared this much for anything in my life,” she insists, quoting one of Jedadiah Schultz’s lines in the play. “I’m not missing this show.”
A week after everything is over, I find out that another actor, the actor playing Dennis Shepard, also had bilharzia—evidently our cast’s illness of choice—during the three performances. Not only did he wait to begin treatment, but he neglected to even tell me about the problem.
“Why didn’t you say something?” I chided him.
“I don’t know, you seemed stressed.”
True enough, although I’m feeling relieved by the end of the dress rehearsal. The roof doesn’t collapse, the lights are working, and we’re able to exit the building before the alarm goes off. We’re ready. We have a real show.
* * *
The audience at opening night agrees. During the intermissions and after the performance, a number of strangers seek me out to shake my hand. Their expressions communicate the deep emotional impact the play has made on them. One woman seated in the front row gasps when the angels open their wings.
The cast members are on a high. Thirty minutes before the show I arranged a Skype call with Mr. Kaufman and his team in New York City, who told the performers to break a leg. We’ve also had great donations—between ticket sales and a crowdsourcing campaign, we’ve raised around $1,000 for the upcoming Uganda Pride celebration.
My only disappointment is that the audience is predominantly white. Many of the leaders of the Ugandan LGBT movement are here—people like Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, Frank Mugisha, and Pepe Julian Onziema—but otherwise the crowd is mostly foreigners. I’m not terribly surprised, since many foreigners travel on the weekends and could only make the show on Thursday night. The attendee list for the upcoming two nights is more mixed.
Still, it’s a time to reflect on what a commitment to diversity really means. In the casting process, I had to look for and convince a number of Ugandans to audition. I emailed one actress with the offer of a role even after she considered auditioning and decided not to. This wasn’t exactly fair to the number of people who did come to auditions and weren’t cast, but I decided that it was of paramount importance to have a diverse group of performers. As a white foreigner, I needed to do extra work to make that happen—sending out a neutral casting call wasn’t enough. I needed to convince potential Ugandan cast members, who were risking more, that this was a good idea.
In the end, my two assistant directors and I cast 13 people, including five Ugandans and two additional people of color. The muzungu cast members hail from the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, and Norway. Many of the performers and crew members are gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
The diversity of accents is one of my favorite aspects of the performance. Sometimes it’s led to challenges—the actor playing Jon Peacock can’t say the troublesome word “prairie” for the life of him, so we remove it—but usually it’s led to opportunities and great additions. We’ve turned Doug Laws, the Mormon church leader, into a Ugandan preacher. Harry Woods, the gay 52-year-old Laramie resident, has gone through various permutations, including a husky drag queen.
Now we’re just missing a more diverse audience. I’ve invited the members of LGBT organizations across Kampala and the cast members have invited their friends, but I wonder if we’ve done enough.
* * *
It’s the first intermission of the second night of the show, and I’m sitting next to a Ugandan friend in the front row. I hold her hand as she weeps quietly. She (who also uses the pronoun he) was once the subject of a violent assault; knowing that the show might be difficult for her, I wanted to check up on her during the break. She admits that the final scene of the first act was hard to watch and I warn her that the last two acts get even more emotionally intense. She turns to me.
“Eighteen hours. He was left out there for eighteen hours. That’s the part I can’t stop thinking about.”
“I know,” I reply. “It’s horrible.” I’m not sure what else to say.
“I’m just glad I didn’t have to wait that long before someone found me.”
Now I’m really speechless. I squeeze her hand.
She’s quiet for a minute and then starts nodding. “I’m glad I’m here,” she says softly. “It makes me feel stronger.”
Lightning flickers on the horizon and continues through the remaining acts. The distant storm adds to the dramatic setting, but it doesn’t rain.
* * *
My main job on the final night of the show is crowd management. We’ve had an LGBT band perform before the play, which was a successful way to attract members of the Ugandan LGBT community to attend. But now the crowd, many of whom were drinking sundowners during the band performance, seems much more restless. One section that’s especially mobile is a group of Ugandans from a town several hours distant. I coordinated with a friend who runs an LGBT organization there to provide transportation. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but my friend is now wandering around drunk.
I notice that something is up when she asks me if she can speak to everyone before the show starts.
“Of course,” I reply with some confusion, assuming she’s asking whether it’s okay to mingle.
“So I can get up on stage?” she asks.
“Absolutely not,” I declare hastily, now recognizing that she’s not at the top of her game. I steer her back to her chair. “Just try to stay here.”