Sharon D Clarke in Pigs and Dogs at the Royal Court
Sharon D Clarke in Pigs and Dogs at the Royal Court
© Helen Murray 2016

"If dogs and pigs don't do it, why must human beings?" The words are President Robert Mugabe's; the ‘it' is homosexuality. "We have our own culture," he would go on to say. Same sex relationships – of any sort – are not it, are not African.

It's a diatribe you find echoed all over Africa, as powerful men, presidents, speak out against homosexuality, outlaw it, jail and beat and execute gay men and women. Homosexuality, they imply, is a product of colonial rule, imported into Africa and fundamentally alien to it.

Caryl Churchill's new short, a swirling mass of quotations delivered by three actors, lands a knock-out blow to that notion. A theatrical précis of a book by anthropologists Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, Boy-Wives and Female Husbands, it refutes the idea – more commonly held than you'd think – that African societies were free of homosexual practices or terms to describe them. Sagoda. Ashtime. Mumene. Wasagu. All these words, in their different ways, imply either gender or sexual fluidity.

Instead, as Pigs and Dogs changes tack, switching from African accents to European ones, it argues that homophobia, not homosexuality, is the colonial byproduct; imported, by missionaries, from Christian law and dogma. It's a stong case, well-made. Churchill's cut-and-paste job is elegant and succinct, and Dominic Cooke's production manages both to shoot straight and seduce us with its rhythms. Alex Hassell, Fisayo Akinade and Sharon D Clarke circle one another, switching accents as they take on others' words. The language itself – these African terms – sound as soft and warm as the homophobic statements sound blunt and harsh.

You might ask why it's theatre? Why carve up an academic text and speak it out loud?

One phrase repeats in Churchill's text: "Somebody says." Sometimes it matters who, sometimes it doesn't. The point is that words change the world; that these Christian colonial diktats, orders against homosexuality, have reshaped not just our understanding of human behaviour, but arguably human behaviour itself. Speeches snowball into action. They reorder societies and, within them, relationships, identities, possibilities.

So, in speaking aloud, in standing on a stage and proclaiming an argument, Churchill's play is doing the same: it changes the world, just that tiny bit. It shifts our understanding of Africa, pushes against our post-colonial perception of a continent and its culture and remakes it anew. The title has another target in mind; the West's sense of superiority over Africa, the lingering post-colonial attitudes that still sees it as somehow savage, even perhaps sub-human – Pigs and Dogs, not Mugabe's "dogs and pigs." Its state-sanctioned homophobia is used as evidence of that, and Churchill's play – crisply, stylishly – rebuts that notion in a mere quarter of an hour.

Pigs and Dogs runs at the Royal Court until 30 July.