‘The Rolling Stone’: Ugandan Homophobia as Modern Tragedy

Despite predictable drawbacks, Chris Urch's theatrical indictment is an important work of art.

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Adenike Thomas, Ato Blankson-Wood in "The Rolling Stone." Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Uganda’s rampant homophobia has made headlines for the last decade. The most intense news storm was around that nation’s Anti-Homophobia Act of 2014, which was enacted and then declared invalid.

Under the statute, Ugandans who were labeled with the Swahili word kuchu were targeted with death or life in prison. Those knowing homosexuals were pressed, by law, to turn in suspects or, failing that, to face charges themselves. Intensifying the horror was a local newspaper called The Rolling Stone that published names and photos of persons involved, or said to be involved, in homosexual activity.

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One of the thousands, if not tens of thousands, infuriated by the situation is playwright Chris Urch. His theatrical indictment, The Rolling Stone, opened at The Royal Exchange in London in 2016, where it won the Brentwood Award. It transferred to London’s Orange Tree, winning the 2017 Off-West End Award for Best Play. Now it’s running Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse.

The first and perhaps most obvious statement to be made about The Rolling Stone is that it’s an issue play, and a very particular issue-play at that. This accounts for its importance as a work of art as well as its nearly predictable drawbacks.

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Set in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, in 2010, Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Sam (Robert Gilbert) are in love. That’s all needed for the drama that develops around them and not only engulfs them but Dembe’s Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor); his minister brother, Joe (James Udom); his sister, Wummie (Latoya Edwards); and Naome (Adenike Thomas), the young woman Dembe is expected to marry, and who has recently and inexplicably lost her ability to speak.

Romance is no a picnic for Dembe and Sam, despite their escapades. (The opening scene has them in set designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s adaptable rectangular boat.) Any romance between Dembe and Naome, meanwhile, isn’t in the cards. Communicating through crude signing, they’ve made the situation clear to one another.

The conflict flares only in Urch’s second act, when Wummie catches on to Dembe and his predilections. Mama and Joe twig to the problem later as the community grows increasingly cognizant of that feature in The Rolling Stone — exposure that Dembe and Sam are initially spared. Compounding the entanglements are the teachings of American missionaries railing against homosexual behavior, their influence inevitably affecting and infecting all the local sermonizing, including Joe’s addresses from the pulpit.

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Urch’s craftily incorporates each character’s individual motivating elements. Dembe’s, of course, is clear; so is Sam’s. Indeed, what moves Joe, as a man of the cloth, and what moves Mama, inured to homosexuality’s supposed evils as dictated by her God, is also clear. What provokes Wummie’s fear is a visit from the honest Sam, who comes looking for Dembe. She’s immediately suspicious: “You’re just a white man painted black,” she spews. Her implied defense for such a humiliating outburst is that if the secret between Dembe and Sam were to become common knowledge, the family would be disgraced; they’d be forced into a self-imposed, futureless exile, like emigrés with nowhere to alight.

Urch exposes this is a late scene in which the family — all the while stressing its importance — argue the steps they must take to remain together. It’s a prospect that becomes less and less likely as anything approaching a happy ending evaporates. This powerful sequence caps a series of moments in the play that depict the heartbreaking conditions faced by so suppressed peoples everywhere, but especially in autocratic societies like Uganda.

No one watching The Rolling Stone can fail to be gobsmacked by the crushing effect that organized religion wields on populaces, rather than liberating them for productive lives and happy family existences. Whereas Dembe is the rolling stone of the title, so is religion, with its potential to roll, stone-like, over its misguided, hate-induced adherents.

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In the way that Urch presents The Rolling Stone, however, the specter of the issue play hovers over it; the sense of an author checking off required ingredients lingers. The plight of immigrants inserted? Check. The LBGTQIA+ community invoked? Check. That sort of thing. The result is a play that impresses as having been written for all the right editorial-page reasons but ultimately by an authorial impulse to take an even more free-fall leap.

The production aspects, especially as directed with pervasive empathy by Saheem Ali, are fine. That definitely goes for the cast, chosen, in addition to their acting, for their singing. As members of Joe’s congregation, they do beautiful versions of several traditional religious hymns, including the seldom heard “Down to the River to Pray.”

A special nod to set designer Maldonado, who keeps the stage floor unfurnished but for the rectangular wooden piece that rises and lowers as that aforementioned boat — or whatever it needs to represent. What Maldonado places on the upstage wall is particularly distinctive: a large drapery that conjures thoughts of Ugandan textiles. Quite subtle, this — a reminder that while wrenching ugliness emanates from Uganda, there is the continuing possibility for beauty as well.