South Africa’s ‘Vogue Opera’ honours life of gay anti-apartheid activist Nkoli

Actors perform during a dance opera celebrating the life of late gay anti-apartheid activist Simon Nkoli, who was jailed in the 1980s, and, alongside comrades, went on to establish the first-ever Gay Pride march in South Africa, at the Market Theatre stage in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 19, 2023.REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Actors perform during a dance opera celebrating the life

South Africa’s ‘Vogue Opera’ honours life of gay anti-apartheid activist Nkoli. Simon Nkoli, an anti-apartheid and homosexual rights activist in South Africa, passed away 25 years ago; nevertheless, a group of artists whom he inspired are determined to keep his memory alive via the creation of an opera commemorating his life. The opera will be titled “Life,” and it will be performed in his honor.

The tale of Nkoli, whose work helped to enshrine homosexual rights in South Africa’s constitution, is told in “Vogue Opera,” a blend of classical music, hip-hop, protest songs, and dance. South Africa was the first country on the African continent to do so. “Vogue Opera” relates the story.

“He brought that for us, it was a gift,” said composer Philip Miller, renowned for his work on fellow South African artist William Kentridge’s “The Head and the Load.” “The Head and the Load” is a performance piece portraying Africans’ involvement in World War One, and it premiered at London’s Tate Modern in 2018. Philip Miller is recognized for his work on “The Head and the Load.”

Miller, who said that he met Nkoli in Johannesburg while researching his own sexual identity, utilized aspects of the LGBTQ+ ballroom culture established in the 1980s in the historically black neighborhood of Harlem in New York City as a form of protest against oppression.

A projected screen in the background displays archive photos as dancers, singers, and other performers move down a runway wearing colorful and sparkly costumes.

The opera, which had its world debut at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre on November 17, looks back at significant periods in Nkoli’s activism and personal life, such as coming out as homosexual and HIV-positive and following his relationship with a white man under apartheid when inter-racial dating was illegal. Other topics covered include Nkoli’s involvement in the anti-apartheid movement and his personal life.

When Nkoli confessed that he was gay while serving a four-year sentence for treason, he was subjected to discrimination from other anti-apartheid activists. This occurred when Nkoli was in jail.

“We enjoy our freedom, but we never really know some of the people that paved the way,” said Abiah Mahlase-Muttit, a fashion designer who attended the exhibition. “So when stories like this are being told, you finally get the chance to just appreciate those that came before us,” she said.

The opera not only exposes the hardships that Nkoli endured but also the joy he offered everyone around him.

“He was very political, and very clear about standing up for justice,” said Welcome Mandla Lishivha, the show’s publicist and researcher. “But he also believed in having a good time, in fashion, and indulging himself into the joyful things that might seem frivolous to some people,” she said.

The producers of the opera have great hopes of touring it around the continent or the world during the following year to bring awareness to the ongoing prejudice that members of the LGBTQ+ community are subjected to.

Only 22 of Africa’s 54 countries allow same-sex interactions, according to a global analysis by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA). Yet in a number of those nations, they face the death penalty or incarceration as punishment.

“If there isn’t social buy-in, we’re not done,” said S’bo Gyre, a rapper who helped co-write the performance.

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