On June 26, 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry extends to same-sex couples. The ruling required all 50 states to recognize same-sex unions and extend to LGBT couples the same marriage rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual couples thereby effectively bringing marriage equality to the whole of the United States of America.
This ruling became important because it shaped the arguments concerning legal recognition and rights of LGBT folk. Unfortunately, these conversations seem not to be making much progress in many African countries. The African LGBTI Declaration which says, “We are specifically committed to the transformation of the politics of sexuality in our contexts. As long as African LGBTI people are oppressed, the whole of Africa is oppressed.” provides a most powerful context for the Just Like Us Play/Exhibition by Drama Queens Ghana.
The play which opens with two actors reciting the African LGBTQI Declaration explores the African LGBTQI experience across the themes of love, homophobia, religion, labelling, ostracization, eroticism, coming out and the overt/covert violence against African queer bodies. The play was enacted in eleven (11) compelling scenes that took the audience on a journey of activism to desire to injustice to eroticism to stigmatization to violence to compassion and finally a destination of purgation and healing.
Although the plot of Just Like Us was quite complex because it detailed a wide range of experiences of LGBTQI folk and sex workers across Africa, it still had a clearly defined structure. The play began with a monologue introducing the audience to the major issues that the play would cover, followed by a series of monologues that would contain stories that served as the exposition, rising action, climax and a dance performance that served as the resolution/catharsis. These monologues included narrations of institutionalized homophobia in high school, of love and sexual experiences and of mob justice against queer women and men, were interspersed by musical and dance performances.
The monologues also doubled as an important dramatic element of the play. The play employed the use of monologues as the primary medium through which the characters interacted with the audience. The monologues were exceptionally delivered and thoroughly engaging as evidenced by the rapt attention the audience paid to the actors throughout the entire play.
Some of the dramatic elements that were prominent in the play include sound, music, lighting and the use of space and specific visual elements like costumes. Most of the actors were clad in all black except for the sex worker who was the most fashionably dressed presumably because she was the happiest character, and the dancer in the final part of the play who was clad in white to signify healing and hope. Another important visual element was the set which contained symbolic objects such as a rosary, earth, burning lanterns, a mirror on which homophobic slurs were written and monochrome photographs from Eric Gyamfi’s photo exhibition. These elements fully impacted on the audience members as each scene was specifically designed and enacted to completely consume them within the action and sequence of events.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Just Like Us is its dramatic style. The entire play was enacted in Immersive Theatre format where the performance is made tangible for the audience. We were welcome into the personal space of some of the actors and were encouraged to not only see the performance but to touch and feel it as well, thereby consuming the audience in a full sensual experience.
The play itself took place at the Nubuke Foundation Art Gallery. The scenes occurred in different parts of the gallery, so the audience was required to move around the gallery to watch the different scenes. The combination of the themes, style and the dramatic elements defined the mood for the play. The audience experienced various emotions as rage, pity, anger, desire, sadness, frustration and hope.
The themes and events of the play visibly affected the audience as it raised very important human rights issues around homophobia and violence against LGBTQI folk. The most emotionally intense scene in the play was the 9th scene titled “I Want to Stay Alive. In this scene, the character narrates his struggle with being conspicuously different in a society where it’s not permitted. He tells us of his experience with homophobia, violence and abuse. There is a mirror in the room on which homophobic slurs are scribbled in red crayon. The character breaks down at the end of his monologue and crashes to the floor as a group of people surround him and scream the words written on the mirror at him as their voices echo loudly all over the entire room.
The play graphically detailed the discrimination, fear, depression and mental frustration LGBTQI folk in Ghana experience daily. We saw sad, confused and depressed characters who vividly mirrored the plight and struggle of LGBTQI folk in a country that neither acknowledges nor protects their humanity as people and their rights as citizens of the state.
The play however ends on a hopeful note. The final scene is a dance performance to the song ‘Hunger’ by Florence + The Machine, which talks about our attempts to find love and escape loneliness but also the importance of acknowledging our vulnerability. The song and dance helped to lighten the mood and dispel some of the heaviness the audience felt during the play.
Just Like Us is a Drama Queens production, directed by Akosua Hanson. I loved the acting. The set was great. It was overall an amazing experience and I’m looking forward to being blown away by the next production from Drama Queens Ghana