Play portrays lives of Senegalese women who must hide their true selves

 Jennifer Kidwell (Aicha) and Anna Zaida Szapiro (Kate) rehearse a love scene in A Knee That Can Bend. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Jennifer Kidwell (Aicha) and Anna Zaida Szapiro (Kate) rehearse a love scene in A Knee That Can Bend. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A new play has premiered in Philadelphia that tells the stories of people who do not want to have their stories told.

“A Knee That Can Bend,” by Emma Goidel, is about lesbians in Senegal, where homosexuality is illegal.

Lesbian relationships still exist there, however under the radar. Goidel traveled to Dakar as an undergraduate in 2011 as part of a study abroad program. She discovered a network of lesbians who, for their own safety, prefer to keep their relationships secret.

“Most women had never considered sharing stories about their identities with someone who wasn’t Senegalese, because it’s so difficult for closeted Senegalese women to be out,” said Goidel. “There was no model for having a public identification as a lesbian.”

Goidel, who identifies as queer, wrote “A Knee That Can Bend” as a fictionalized version of her experiences in Senegal’s lesbian underground. The story is about an American student, Kate, doing sociological research on homosexuals in Senegal. The line between her academic research and her personal relationships gets blurry.

“The play is about what Kate does to get the research she wants,” said Goidel, who insists she is not Kate.

Goidel wrote an early version of this play as a traditional documentary, telling other women’s stories while changing the names. She performed that one-woman show as her thesis project while living in Dakar, and never again.

She says she returned to the subject for this fictional play because it presents a cross-cultural paradox: How can she have fallen in love with Senegalese culture while that culture denies her own sexuality?

“That was the big question,” said Goidel. “I was so full of questions. I had had access to this incredible, closeted community that few get to enter.”

“A Knee That Can Bend” is produced by the Orbiter 3 theater collective, now running at Theater Exile in South Philadelphia.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.