Americans take their rights for granted and young people do not even bother to learn about battles that were waged by the previous generation to right the wrongs of decades. Conservative and repressive regimes are springing up all over the world and eroding rights that are guaranteed elsewhere. In 2010, The Rolling Stone newspaper in Kampala, Uganda, egged on by Christian missionaries from the United States, began publishing on its front page the photographs, names and addresses of people who were known to be or suspected of being homosexual. This has led to harassment and violence toward men and women who may or may not be gay. Although the paper lasted only a short time, the damage of this gay witch hunt was irreparable.
It is not until the second act of British playwright Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone that the play catches fire but from then on the drama is explosive, compelling and very disturbing. Once the play gets past the introductory exposition that sets up the plot, the production by Saheem Ali (Donja R. Love’s Sugar in Our Wounds and Fireflies, and Christopher Chen’s Passage) is taut, tense and involving.
The play begins in Kampala in 2010 on the day 18-year-old Ugandan Dembe begins a clandestine affair with Sam, a British doctor whose father is Irish and his mother is Ugandan. It is also the day of Dembe’s father’s funeral which will also have repercussions for the family as he left only debts and no money which may jeopardize Dembe or his sister Wummie’s chance to take their medical exams to study in London. Dembe’s older brother Joe is made pastor of their church with the help of their officious neighbor known as Mama, a jolly woman who is also nosy, self-righteous and seemingly pious. Her favorite expression is “It is not my place to say.” Mama and Joe hope that Dembe and Naome will marry in the near future. However, Naome has not spoken in six months, due to an unknown trauma.
Mama also brings Joe the first edition of The Rolling Stone, the new paper that is publishing pictures, names and addresses of supposedly gay people (called “Kuchu” in Ugandan) on its front page and calling for violence. Not only is it illegal to be gay in Uganda which can lead to long imprisonment, but family members who know and do not report them can get four years in prison as well. Shades of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, it is guilt by association as Mama tells us. Joe’s first sermon on sin is extremely forceful and he impresses the church elders who thought he might be too young for the appointment. However, the church is unable to pay him until he brings in more parishioners. This causes him to make some Draconian decisions.
Pastor Joe goes on to take homosexuality as his chief sin and preaches dramatically against it, causing consternation for his brother. When Sam discovers that his cell phone has been stolen, Dembe worries that there were photos of him on it that can be used against him. According to Mama, “These people recruit, rape and spread disease,” she tells Dembe, not knowing that she is talking to a gay man. One of Dembe, Wummie and Naome’s classmates is denounced by The Rolling Stone as gay and he disappears. When he turns up dead by the side of the road, the stakes have been raised. He most likely was not gay at all but it may be a revenge killing. People are beginning to accuse others as a way of settling scores, just like in the Salem Witch Trial.
Under Ali’s direction the cast of six immediately becomes these people from the moment we meet them. Ato Blankson-Wood (last season’s Slave Play) captures the confusion and doubts of Dembe. As Sam, the doctor who is in love with him, Robert Gilbert is quite personable, making him a caring and compassionate person, if a fish out of water in a new land. James Udom’s Joe, the young pastor who also has to take care of the family that his father’s debts left destitute, is both forceful and single-minded. As the catalyst for much of the action Myra Lucretia Taylor is splendidly imposing as the sinister Mama whose seeming benevolence hides a malicious personal agenda. While Adenike Thomas as her daughter Naome never utters a word, her performance speaks volumes. Last but not least, Latoya Edwards as Dembe and Joe’s sister Wummie whose dreams of being a doctor are shattered is feisty and fearless as a teen wise beyond her years.
The spare staging which allows the play to move swiftly to its conclusion owes a great deal to Arnulfo Maldonado’s bare set except for an oblong which rises from below the stage to create a bed and a canoe. The set is backed by a magnificent drop which suggests a landscape of rolling hills in earth tones. Japhy Weideman’s lighting also helps with the feeling of both the African sun and the evening moonlight. Dede Ayite’s costumes define the characters in distinct ways, from Dembe’s colorful shirts to Wummie’s uniforms to Pastor Joe’s formal attire. The original music and sound (various off-stage hymns, etc.) is the work of Justin Ellington.
Chris Urch’s second play, The Rolling Stone having its New York premiere at the Lincoln Center Theater is structurally deficient in that its first act is all exposition with little show of the tensions to come. However, its second act makes up for this with a heart-pounding tautness which drives home its message with a vengeance. Under the direction of Saheem Ali, the cast could not be better and creates indelible characters caught up in a situation you will not soon forget. It is a painful reminder that human rights injustices are prevalent all around the world at this very moment.
The Rolling Stone (through August 25, 2019)
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.LCT.org
Running time: one hours and 55 minutes including one intermission