South Africa’s ‘Vogue Opera’ honors the life of gay anti-apartheid activist Nkoli. Although Simon Nkoli, a South African homosexual activist and anti-apartheid campaigner who organized the continent’s first Pride march in 1990, passed away 25 years ago, a group of artists who drew inspiration from him are working hard to create an opera in his honor.
“Vogue Opera” narrates the tale of Nkoli, whose campaigning helped to entrench homosexual rights in South Africa’s constitution—the first country on the continent to do so. It combines hip-hop, classical music, protest songs, and dance.
Composer Philip Miller, well known for his work on fellow South African artist William Kentridge’s “The Head and the Load,” a performance piece portraying Africans’ involvement in World War One that debuted at London’s Tate Modern in 2018, commented, “He brought that for us; it was a gift.”
Miller employed aspects of LGBTQ+ ballroom culture, which started in the 1980s in New York’s historic black neighborhood of Harlem, as a form of protest against oppression. Miller claimed to have met Nkoli in Johannesburg when he was examining his own sexual identity.
In front of an old photo projected screen, dancers and singers perform on a runway dressed in vibrant, shimmering costumes.
The opera, which made its debut on November 17 at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, explores significant turning points in Nkoli’s activism and personal life, including his coming out as homosexual and HIV-positive and his romance with a white man during the apartheid era, when it was illegal for people of different races to date.
When Nkoli came out as gay while serving a four-year jail term for treason, he encountered discrimination even from other anti-apartheid campaigners.
Fashion designer Abiah Mahlase-Muttit said, “We enjoy our freedom, but we never really know some of the people that paved the way. So, when stories like this are being told, you finally get to just appreciate those that came before us.”
In addition to highlighting Nkoli’s hardships, the opera also highlights the joy he offered to others.
Mandla Lishivha, the show’s publicist and researcher, said of him, “He was very political and very clear about standing up for justice, but he also believed in having a good time, in fashion, and indulging himself in the joyful things that might seem frivolous to some people.”
The opera’s authors intend to tour it around the continent or the globe in the upcoming year to draw attention to the ongoing prejudice that members of the LGBTQ+ community endure.
An international analysis by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA) found that of the 54 nations in Africa, just 22 allow same-sex relationships, and that in some of these countries, the practice is illegal and can result in death or jail.
Rapper and co-writer of the performance, S’bo Gyre, declared, “If there isn’t social buy-in, we’re not done.”