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UMass fields protests over Ugandan orphans show

In phone calls and emails, the Fine Arts Center is being asked to defend its choice to stage the program Wednesday.

“They ask, ‘Why are we presenting them, how could we, shame on us,’” said Shawn Farley, the center’s executive director. “We’re kind of at a loss, because these children are the furthest thing from this. ... They have nothing to do with Ugandan politics, the president or any of that.”

It was already against the law in Uganda to engage in homosexual acts, but on Monday, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed a measure that specifies life in prison for crimes categorized as “aggravated homosexuality.” The measure, introduced in 2009 and approved last year, initially called for the death penalty for some homosexual acts.

“We condemn everything that the Ugandan president is signing in to law,” Farley said.

The visiting group is made up of Ugandan children orphaned by civil war and AIDS. A nonprofit American group, Empower African Children, is the tour’s creator.

On Thursday, because of what Farley characterized as “hate emails and hate calls,” the center issued a statement condemning Museveni’s decision to reverse his earlier opposition to the measure and sign the bill. “As a cultural center we believe in honoring all people by celebrating the breadth of artistic and cultural expression our world has to offer,” it reads.

The statement was sent by email to more than 10,000 people on the center’s distribution list, including all regular patrons. Farley said it was an earlier newsletter about the show that prompted the criticism. Halina Kusleika, programming director for the center series, contacted the people who questioned the performance. Farley said they softened their criticism after receiving the statement and speaking with Kusleika.

The statement noted that Empower African Children helps the Ugandan orphans with scholarships and ways to advance their artistic careers. “Their performance involvement provides an opportunity for them to learn and share their traditions of dance and music with people throughout the world,” the statement said.

Alexis Hefley, the founder and president of Empower African Children, said Thursday in a phone interview from Miami that while Uganda’s anti-gay laws have been “a boiling issue for the last six years,” her group is nonpolitical. “Our focus is really on supporting orphans and vulnerable children,” she said.

Hefley said her group supports UN resolutions on human rights and believes in both the “rights of humanity (and) the dignity of individuals.”

The group has been touring since Jan. 15 and hasn’t encountered any other complaints, Hefley said.

The nonprofit holds guardianship responsibilities for the orphans, who perform as volunteers. They all attend secondary school or college in Uganda, Hefley said.

“Spirit of Uganda” uses its 22 performers, ranging in age from 12 to 20, to showcase sounds and movement associated with East Africa, including call-and-response singing, drums and choreography. The New York Times said the show offers “that elusive thing called joy” through invigorating performance.

Farley said that some UMass faculty considered protesting the event, but said that possibility has been “defused.”

“Protesting these children? It’s just the wrong thing,” she said.

The statement said the center “stands with our LGBTQA community as allies in the opposition to the government policies enacted by the Ugandan president. We also support the efforts of the young people from Empower African Children as they work toward effecting change and building a better future for themselves and other Ugandan youth.”

President Obama had said enactment of the new law would affect relations between the U.S. and Uganda, calling the law “an affront and a danger to the gay community” in Uganda.

“Spirit of Uganda” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the center’s Concert Hall. Tickets are $38, $35 and $15, with students from the Five Colleges and others 17 and under admitted for $10.

Performers will also participate in a workshop Tuesday on the same stage starting at 6 p.m. For information on tickets, call 545-4160.

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