WILLIAMSTOWN — Samira Wiley was horrified when she first saw videos of heterosexual South African men and women talking frankly, and unapologetically, about the country’s scourge of so-called “corrective rape” — sexual violence perpetrated against gays and lesbians to “cure” them of their homosexuality.
“There’s this one video we watched of this guy talking about how this is the best thing for these women because it will help turn them straight. It’s appalling,” says Wiley, who recently scored an Emmy nomination for her performance as Moira on “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The actress, also known for playing Poussey on “Orange Is the New Black,” viewed the videos with fellow cast members as part of their preparation for “Dangerous House,” a riveting new play set in South Africa in which two queer female characters grapple with their country’s hostility toward lesbians and gays and the fear of violence they face every day. Written by Jen Silverman, “Dangerous House” begins performances on Wednesday at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Nikos Stage. Like Moira in “Handmaid’s Tale,” Wiley’s character, Pretty Mbane, is trying to make her way in a society rife with sexual violence. She’s become an activist who provides a safe house for gay women and starts a petition to the Ministry of Justice to classify “corrective rape” as a hate crime.
During a rehearsal break, Wiley’s voice quakes with emotion as she talks about the urgency and power of the play for her, as a queer woman. “I live a very open life. I’m married to the love of my life [television writer and producer Lauren Morelli]. When we got married, our wedding was featured in Martha Stewart Weddings magazine. It’s not a part of my life that I have to hide. So it almost made me feel guilty — that I’m able to live this open life and feel safe and other people don’t have that,” she says, on the verge of tears. “It’s hard for me to watch the videos and to think about if I were to live there.”
While South Africa was the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation (in its post-apartheid constitution), and the first African country to recognize same-sex marriage, brutality against gay women is often condoned in segments of society that view them as a threat to the established order. According to nonprofit advocacy organization Luleki Sizwe, 31 lesbians have been murdered because of their sexuality in the last 10 years.
Silverman (“The Roommate,” “The Moors”) began imagining the play after hearing about the terrifying reality of “corrective rape” from South African friends she met while living in Japan after graduating from Brown University. As she went down a rabbit hole of research, she learned about a woman named Ndumie Funda who runs Luleki Sizwe, which provides support and shelter for lesbians who are victims of homophobic attacks and rape. Funda became Silverman’s inspiration for the fictional character of Pretty.
Funda saw an earlier version of “Dangerous House” in Philadelphia in 2015 and helped Silverman realize that although Pretty is doing something brave and selfless, the writer shouldn’t put her on a pedestal. “She can’t be a symbol. She has to be a person,” Silverman says. “She has to be flawed and complicated and all of the things that any human would be.”
In the play, Pretty’s ex-girlfriend, Noxolo (Alfie Fuller), lives in London as a student on a soccer scholarship. Noxolo chose to leave Cape Town — and her perilous situation as a young lesbian — to pursue an opportunity in a more tolerant place. Despite their breakup, the former couple has remained in contact, until communication from Pretty ceases and Noxolo begins to fear the worst.
Her gay friend Marcel (Phillip James Brannon), who fled South Africa after he was nearly beaten to death and who made a new life in London, pleads with Noxolo not to return and search for Pretty. Noxolo’s gregarious brother Sicelo (Atandwa Kani), who lives in Cape Town, feels the same. Meanwhile, an American journalist named Gregory (Michael Braun) has come to South Africa to cover the 2010 World Cup, but stumbles onto a story about the country’s dark underbelly.
Silverman spent part of her formative years outside of America, moving around with her family in Europe, Asia, and Scandinavia. While living in Japan as a young adult, she had a close group of friends from other countries, and they had ongoing conversations about what it meant to be living there as foreigners. “Are we in limbo? Are we putting down new roots?” Silverman says.
Indeed, she says the question of home lies at the root of “Dangerous House.” “What is it to choose to create a new life? And what is it to choose to go back home? And what is the price that an individual pays by making those choices? For part of the play, Noxolo resists going back because she knows what that price will be. So what is it to choose happiness and safety over risk and visibility? And I don’t think I can have a judgment about someone making one choice vs. another.”
As a gay man who was born and raised in Kenya, a country where homosexuality is taboo and sodomy is illegal, director Saheem Ali says he related strongly to the questions that the play raises. “I left Kenya and I live and work [in the States] now,” he says. “And as a gay man, I feel more at home here than I do in the place where I was born. But with that comes my own sense of guilt, my own sense of questioning. Like, ‘I could have stayed. I could have made a difference.’ ”
After the production of “Dangerous House” in 2015, Silverman says she set aside the play for a few years, because of her own “discomfort, self-doubt, and anxiety” about her right to tell a story set in a country and culture to which she doesn’t belong.
But Ali assured her she was on the right track. Indeed, when he first read the play late one night, “I was completely swept away,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that someone who wasn’t an African had written this. Because the tone and the language felt so authentic. It felt respectful and rang deeply true, in my own measure.”
“I’ve been so scared of the play for a long time,” Silverman says. “I think it is such a complicated thing to write about a culture that you are not born into. There’s a certain amount of responsibility you have. Yes, the play is bringing up a conversation about queerness and risk that is very personal to me as a queer woman. But I have a lot of questions around my right to do it as someone who’s not from South Africa, and those questions will never go away, and they probably shouldn’t.”
Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival, Aug. 8-19. At ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Nikos Stage, Williamstown. Tickets $60, 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.org