Our Talk With Cheril Clarke, Author of Ugandan Lesbian Refugee Play Asylum

A scene from "Asylum."

A scene from “Asylum.”

Local playwright and author Cheril Clarke always felt like Philadelphia was the proper place to present her intense drama Asylum, a true story about a Ugandan lesbian who escaped her home country after her life was in jeopardy. As per tradition in the woman’s home country, her father was set to kill her because of her sexuality.

After an award-winning run at a theater festival in New York, Clarke is bringing her play to Philly this weekend to The Stagecrafters Theatre for a limited engagement with most of the original cast. She first heard the tale of the refugee when she was working as a freelance writer for Out in New Jersey magazine; Clarke was asked to sign a petition to help the young woman.

“It just stuck with me,” Clarke told me. “I had no intentions of ever writing the show, but I wanted to contact her.” After going through a secretive network of individuals (since the woman was still in great danger at the time), Clarke was able to make contact with the refugee.

“We started by me offering my friendship, and over time, she became more comfortable,” Clarke said. “I really wanted to write about it, that this type of thing was happening. It’s a foreign concept here: If you’re gay, the consequence is death by the hand of your own parents. They’re just trying to live.”

Although the play deals with foreign concepts, there’s more than enough for American audiences to relate to. For instance, in the drama we learn that there’s extensive domestic violence that occurs between characters, and for Clarke, the hardest part is knowing that “a parent can accept that as a way of life, and that they have to push their daughters into this life.”

Clarke is also concerned with black LGBT visibility in itself, saying that highlighting this particular demographic “can be beneficial for everyone.”

“Even within the LGBT community, not everyone is the same,” she said. “There are so many stories that can be told, of suburban life versus urban tales, for instance. When we pull back the curtain, we realize we’re alike and we’re unalike and that’s okay.”

She added, with a laugh, “You know, not every story is a tragedy. There’s a lot of happy black gay folks who are just fine!”

In the future, Clarke is trying to bring Asylum to UK, but, in the interim, she’s embracing everything that Philly has to offer, even when it comes down to matters of fate, something that she admits she’s really doesn’t believe in. However, one has to wonder if there wasn’t something a bit magical that occurred when she met up with a Ugandan director who made an appearance at Philly’s QFlix LGBT film festival. After a little recollection, the filmmaker, Kamoga Hassan, realized that he had helped Clarke’s protagonist when she was first trying to escape Uganda by making photocopies of paperwork.

Now that’s a small world.

‘Asylum’ runs at the Stagecrafters Theatre from July 24-26, 2015. For tickets and more information, visit the play’s website.