Life in modern day Uganda is never less than difficult for LGBTQI people. For the duration of its influence, however, the short-lived Kampala weekly newspaper Rolling Stone made it dangerous.
Though its circulation was small – estimated at some 2000 copies a week – Rolling Stone (which had no affiliation with the American magazine) hit world headlines in 2010 when it published a front page story, “100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos Leak”, that listed the names, photographs and addresses of 100 LGBTQI people. The page was badged with the words “National Scandal” and “Hang Them”.
On January 26, 2011, a Ugandan gay activist David Kato was killed in his own home, bludgeoned to death with a hammer. His picture was among those in the Rolling Stone article.
That incident and others convinced English playwright Chris Urch to write a new play, The Rolling Stone, which is about to receive its Australian premiere courtesy of Outhouse Theatre Company.
Audrey Journal’s Elissa Blake asked Chris to elaborate on what led him to write the play – which was awarded the Manchester Theatre Award for Best New Play in 2015, and Best New Play at the Off West End Awards 2017 – and speak to the issues of diversity and authorship.
Firstly, what inspired you to write The Rolling Stone, how it was received and how you feel about the play now?
CU: I was inspired to write the play after I came across an article about the Rolling Stone newspaper outing people in Uganda as homosexuals. Some of those people were killed, houses were fire bombed and businesses destroyed. Families were torn apart.
This all coincided with a law which broadened the criminalisation of same-sex relationships in Uganda.
As a gay man myself I was horrified by this. There are still so many countries in the world where you can receive the death penalty or where homosexuality is illegal. In Uganda, arguably, the endemic homophobia stems from British colonial laws, and the American evangelical churches that have infiltrated the country in recent years. As a British person I was interested in knowing how the cultures interlink and how we, as British people, may be responsible.
So, an investigative and a personal interest?
CU: Every play I write is personal. I’m very lucky that, as a British citizen, I live in a country where homosexuality is no longer illegal. But growing up I received physical and verbal abuse for being who I am and I have grown up not having a lot of the same legal rights as my heterosexual friends.
That has changed in the last few years but never underestimate how quickly these protections can be taken away from us. Despite us having made great strides forward there is still much work to be done.
Did you write The Rolling Stone with an aim to promote change?
CU: I think the play raises questions for an audience to go away and think about, or engage with or argue about.
Obviously it is raising attention to what is going on in Uganda and in other places in the world where it is still illegal to be gay. If the play inspires people to take action, that’s wonderful.
I know from productions in the UK and in Brazil (where they have the highest murder rates of homosexuals in the world), it has had a positive impact on a lot of people. And within the casts of the play, it’s helped foster an understanding between actors and some of their family members after they’ve come to watch it and see the issues it raises.
There is much discussion in Australian theatre at the moment around who has the right to tell certain stories, or, whether such rights and limits should exist at all when it comes to playwriting. Is this debate happening in the UK and what are the challenges in writing a play about a people and a culture you are not part of?
CU: We are having this debate in the UK and it’s very important we have it and that change and progress occurs.
I wrote The Rolling Stone because as a gay man I identified with and emotionally responded to the story. Obviously, I was very aware that it wasn’t my culture and I always tried to be incredibly sensitive to that. I did as much research as I possibly could and spoke to many people whose culture and experience it was, and then brought them into the development process to make sure I was being as accurate as possible.
Likewise, in production, we had the most diverse team on-stage and off-stage who all collaborated to create as authentic a piece as possible.
The play received a production because it won the Bruntwood Prize, the biggest playwriting competition in the UK. It’s judged anonymously by a diverse panel of readers. It is about the quality of the work rather than who you are or where you may come from.
I was working three jobs at the time to cover my rent, and was writing all through the night. If I hadn’t submitted the play to the Bruntwood, it’s quite possible The Rolling Stone would never have found its way to the stage, which I feel would have been a huge shame.
But censorship does concern me, and some of the greatest stories have come from the most unlikely of people, so we have to be mindful of this. I do hope one day writers can write whatever story they want to, regardless of their background, but I don’t see how that can happen until there is full equality across the board … and that is going to take some time.
In the UK there is a gender and race imbalance but also a systemic issue with class, which often goes unspoken. The majority of writers can’t break into the theatre industry because they simply can’t afford to. Therefore, writers and directors who do get the work, generally, come from wealthy backgrounds.
As a working class lad, my debut play Land of Our Fathers and The Rolling Stone won competitions, which is how they got staged. It has taken me five years to get a commission from anyone.
So if it’s hard for me to get work, go figure how hard it must be for women and people from a minority background to get the opportunity to see their work staged.
Fundamentally, we need fairer representation on and off stage. This will only really start to happen when we have more diversity in the artistic directors running the theatres.
What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing The Rolling Stone?
CU: I want to say that as serious as the subject matter is, the play is actually very funny at times. It centres on a family and I feel that the play resonates in a universal way. It’s also a love story, so again, regardless of your sexuality, most people are able to relate.
For me all theatre is political in someway or other. However, the best way to do it is through the personal. If you have great characters and an engaging story, hopefully you will have a good night at the theatre. I just hope that the audience is as diverse as possible. And again, if it brings awareness, or inspires people to get involved or become more informed, tolerant, or understanding of others, surely that’s a good thing.
The Rolling Stone plays at the Seymour Centre, July 5-21