Churchill first demonstrates a sort of gender mismatch with her casting specifications. In Act I, the gender confusion is literal: men play women, and vice versa. This theme is closely tied to the comedy of the play. One cannot help but laugh at the male Betty's subservience to Clive. Churchill complicates the gender confusion with a sexual confusion. Even those characters not played by opposite-sex actors have nontraditional sexual orientations. Harry, for instance, has a sexual relationship with a little boy.
This theme extends into Act II, with Edward insisting that he would rather be a woman. Churchill argues that the placing of personalities and different sexual orientations in physical bodies is almost random. The great challenge of life is learning to reconcile one's upbringing and one's physical identity with one's true sexuality.
In Act I, for the characters to act on their true feelings, they must do so in secret, at one point during a game of hide and seek. Clive's value system calls for a covering of identity if that identity disrespects England. Clive believes that nontraditional sexual identities are sicknesses that might be cured. Churchill seems to suggest otherwise, that while gender can be rearranged, sexual identity cannot be. In the second act, Betty, Edward, and Victoria, now distanced from Clive, continue the difficult search for identity. Although they are now free of Clive's direct influence, they face the new challenges of establishing an identity in a world far different from Victorian era Africa.
Though Clive is not present in Act II, his value system still has effects on the characters. Betty is still afraid of life without him, and Victoria is hesitant to leave a traditional marriage that is falling apart. Churchill makes the influence of the past more tangible by bringing characters from Act I back into the story of Act II. These characters reappear briefly, highlighting the differences between past and present, but demonstrating that the characters still remember their past and must come to terms with its influence.
To exert control over the natives, Clive must employ a variety of violent measures. He has Joshua flog some of the tribesmen and his troops burn native villages. In his own home, Clive has also created an atmosphere of violence. Betty punishes Edward by slapping him, and Clive allows Betty to attack Mrs. Saunders when he and Mrs. Saunders kiss. Clive himself is not actively violent, perhaps suggesting the hypocrisy of his oppression. He keeps his hands clean by allowing others to actually carry out his wishes with violence. The violence of Act I reappears in the assault on Cathy by the Dead Hand Gang. The "dead hand" of Clive's world strikes once more to keep Cathy from playing with the boys.
In Act I, Churchill uses songs to heighten the satirical aspect of the play. The first song, "Come Gather," suggests a blind, comic loyalty to England. Later, Joshua sings "In the Deep Midwinter" about a world he does not know. Clive's brainwashing has come as far to demand that an African sing British Christmas carols. "Boy's Best Friend" is a contrast to how Edward truly feels about being a dutiful son. Each song highlights the hypocrisy of Clive's Africa. In Act II, the song "Cloud Nine," is a bit more truthful, depicting the characters as they learn to enjoy their world of sexual confusion.
In her stage directions, Churchill uses the act of embracing repeatedly as a physical means of demonstrating love or a lack thereof. Ellen embraces Betty as she expresses her love for her. Conversely, Edward rejects Betty's offer to embrace when he becomes ashamed for scolding Joshua. Churchill never instructs Clive and Betty to embrace, perhaps suggesting the superficiality of their relationship. At the end of the play, the two Bettys embrace, showing that Betty has finally grown to love herself.
In Act II, Churchill writes that the seasons change from scene to scene. These seasonal changes parallel the journey of the characters in many ways. Act II opens in winter. Like the climate, the characters are cold and their sexuality is dead in many ways. When spring arrives in Act II, Scene two, people begin to come out of sexual hibernation and begin challenging the status quo. Gerry and Edward break off their relationship, and Victoria and Martin begin to argue about the terms of their marriage. With summer comes sexual liberation. Lin, Victoria, and Edward hold an orgy in the park, and Betty rediscovers masturbation.
Betty's necklace, the one that Edward steals in Act I, actually physically reappears in Act II. In Act I, the necklace represents Edward's secret defiance of his family in seeking Harry's love. In Act II, the necklace symbolizes Betty's connection with the past. She offers the necklace to Cathy, suggesting that she still holds on to some traditional notions of femininity. Cathy's acceptance of the necklace suggest that even the daughter of a lesbian can be influenced by society's standards of what women are supposed to be.
Guns are first used as an indication of the violence of Clive's world. Clive's system of control turns on him when, at the end of the act, Joshua raises a gun to shoot him. Ironically, the system that Clive sets up eventually brings about his demise. Guns remain a symbol of power in Act II. Lin arms daughter Cathy with toy guns to give Cathy status that Lin never had as a little girl. Lin mentions that her mother never gave her guns. Even amidst the sexual liberation of Act II, the threat of violence is necessary to represent control and status.
In Act I, dolls become a symbol of submissive femininity. Just as dolls are crafted by a doll-maker, Clive's children, especially Victoria (who is played by a doll/dummy in the first act) have been formed out of Clive's idea of who they should be. Clive and Betty periodically catch Edward playing with Victoria's doll, foreshadowing his later desire to play a submissive role in a homosexual relationship.