Black playwright Beverly Andrews explains how reports of a homophobic crackdown in Africa inspired her play, Circles, which tells stories around HIV and AIDS
Can theatre actually change how we see the world around us and perhaps ultimately open our hearts? As a working playwright I often tell myself that it's possible but with the challenges of being a freelancer it can be fairly rare that I ever have an opportunity to write about something I feel genuinely passionate about.
All that changed for me though about two years ago, when my sister Rosalind Andrews-Worthy, who founded her own HIV and AIDS charity, Gospel Against AIDS, approached me about writing something about the pandemic.
At first I just couldn't think of a way of approaching it that hadn't already been done before and in my opinion probably done better by half-a-dozen more renowned writers then myself. But then after reading increasingly distressing reports about the rise of homophobia in the black community and particularly in Africa, where several countries are considering following Uganda's example and tabling legislation which will make being gay an act punishable by imprisonment for first offenders and then for subsequent offences death, I decided as a black playwright that it was absolutely my responsibility to make a commitment to the project and to find a way of making it happen.
It's funny because after making that decision the focus of Circles gradually started to shift and it became far less a project about HIV and AIDS per se, although each story in Circles has a loose connection to the virus, but rather a story about compassion and something which I feel asks the question, ‘if you could see the world through another set of eyes, would it ever look the same again?’
Initially I started Circles with just two stories in mind but gradually – it just seem to evolve into a much bigger piece, with four very different narrative strands. All of those strands have themes which I feel are very much impacting our lives today. Themes such as corporate greed, religious fundamentalism and gang loyalty.
The pieces include one set in the mid 70s, pre AIDS, which tells the story of a young gay man, escaping a repressive, claustrophobic American mid-west. He arrives in New York for the first time and promptly falls in love with an older gay man. The story is set in a gay club and clearly highlights the hedonistic atmosphere which existed at the time. A hedonistic atmosphere which in no-way was confined to the gay community at the time, and one which was very much a reaction, I think, to the sexual repression which proceeded it.
It's really funny to me but when I have spoken to friends about the 1970s they are somehow still shocked at the excess without realizing that there is a historical precedence for this. Historically every period in history which has been prescriptive in terms of people's sexual behaviour has been followed by one of excess. From Cromwell's England followed then by the notorious Restoration to Franco's Spain whose demise produced the vibrant, crazy 1980s’ Barcelona.
Hedonism is a very normal reaction, particularly looking at the gay community of the 70s, who were at the time still very much the target of often state sanctioned violent homophobia. I was shocked to read about a hospital which was actually administering drugs which induced a form of water-boarding as a medical ‘treatment’ for gay men. As a friend said to me recently ‘when you see it in that context it's no wonder that if you found a place where you could get love, you would go back as often as possible to receive it from as many people as possible. It just makes sense.’
I wanted to take those who would condemn these times – and the behaviour that took place – inside that story so that they are not mere bystanders but gay clubbers. And I hope in doing so, I will challenge their own pre-conceived prejudices.
Another story included in Circles covers last year’s London riots which I lived through and was horrified by, like every other resident of the British capital. But later, in their aftermath, I wanted to try to understand why they happened to try to see into the lives of the kids who took part. To try to understand what it means to someone when the best day of your life is the day when you burn your own neighborhood down.
I wanted to understand what kind of alienation they must feel that could trigger that kind of reaction. But at the same time I also was keen to highlight the destruction they caused for many shop owners who live the same marginalized the kids do and who in many cases simply could not afford to replace their stock.
Henry’s story is about an investment banker, where the audience are the bank's interns and the story focuses on an executive who has to choose between his loyalty to the bank and his own moral conscience as it emerges his employers have made a secret agreement with the government to avoid, at a time of fiscal austerity, paying any tax.
Finally the story which I feel most passionately about since it highlights the level of hate which is currently sweeping parts of Africa today, is that of Pastor Mustapha. A misguided Ugandan preacher who – in the face of what he sees as the moral disintegration of his country – has retreated into a romanticized view of the past: a past in which tolerance for gay rights was absent. He has now become a passionate supporter of Uganda's anti gay law, not realizing that his beloved son is both gay and HIV positive.
All the stories will be performed over the course of a week, taking place in the locations in which the stories are set. We decided as well that we wanted to have the audience have a hand in the eventual fate of all the central characters and so we thought it would be interesting to ask them to text four adjectives at a point in each piece and the adjectives they text will dictate all four conclusions which in turn will be performed on 12 May in the Baldwin Room of London's Tricycle Theatre.
Although this will be a workshop performance the team working on Circles is pretty impressive given how little funding we have had to work with. They include theatre producer Esther Nissard, former Royal Shakespeare Company director Vik Sivalingam, and Bafta nominated filmmaker Dan Saul, Italian singer and composer Lyra Veroli and Italian musician and producer Bruno D’Ambra.
Right now we are in a complete panic since the corporate funding we were promised has fallen through and we are busy scrambling around to find a way to replace it. We've launched a pretty desperate last minute fund-raising campaign on the crowd funding website Indiegogo.
We are very anxious to be able to fill the funding gap since we are all passionate about the piece and we hope, after this workshop performance, we can take Circles further – possibly as an international production.
Working on this has helped me rediscover my passion for writing for theatre again and I do now really believe that, yes a play can help us open our hearts to others.
Circles will premier in five different London locations from 6 to 12 May. Visit Circle’s website for booking information. You can find their crowd funding campaign and make a donation here. You can also email Esther Nissard, their producer, if you are able to help.