Playwright's Tale Of LGBT Refugees in S. Africa

Published: July 24, 2013

In the midst of vibrant plays, colorfully dressed acrobats and dancers, and the live music of the National Art Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, there was one darker performance called "Home/Affair."
Directed by Andrew Brown, a Ph.D candidate in performance studies at Northwestern University, "Home/Affair" uses theater to communicate a political message about lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/ transgender refugees in South Africa. Homosexuality is illegal in 38 African countries, so South Africa, with more liberal laws regarding discrimination, has become a haven for gay refugees fleeing persecution.
Mbogeni N Mtshali, the play’s sole performer, acts out the stories of several different real-life refugees. Across the stage are various suitcases. As he opens one suitcase, the sound of music fills the room. He opens another and the audience hears the voices of gay refugees each narrating their own story. Putting on red heels and a white dress, Mtshali tells the audience about a boy he fell in love with and the abuse he faced for his sexuality.
"Home/Affair" highlights the realities of the LGBT community in Africa. In African countries where homosexuality is illegal, the "crime" is often punished by torture, beating and sometimes death. As a result, many sexual refugees flee to South Africa. Although South Africa’s constitution acknowledges human rights, the reality on the ground is much different than on paper. Sifting through a stack of documents from the Home Affairs office (which has the power to offer, reject, or extend refugee status), Mtshali declares that many applicants are rejected because the asylum-seeker does not have "well-founded fear" of returning to his or her country. Another is rejected because the applicant knew it was illegal to be gay in his country and failed to obey the law. Despite the trauma the refugee experienced in their home countries, officials deny that the refugee is truly afraid of returning.
Director Andrew Brown said in an interview that the play "is most directly inspired by the stories themselves and my interests in the stories." Brown started visiting South Africa to work with its LGBT organizations. Through spending time with his interview subjects and learning about them, Brown discovered that many clients were not from South Africa themselves, but were LGBT refugees looking for help or resources that they could not find elsewhere.
"The LGBT resources didn’t know quite what to do with them, and the refugee organizations didn’t know quite what to do with them, so I became really invested and interested in these people and concerned for them as well," Brown said. After his stint working with LGBT organizations in South Africa ended, Brown came back a second time and spent almost a year interviewing and spending time with refugees. These encounters formed the basis of "Home/Affair."

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