By EDWARD RUBIN
While New York City recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising with much hoopla and an enormous traffic-stopping Gay Pride parade that went on well into the night, New York’s Lincoln Center Theater chose to feature the other side of the coin by mounting the American premiere of playwright Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone.
Sensitively directed by Saheem Ali – the play an import from London – is scheduled to run through Sunday, August 25.
Though all six characters in this harrowing political play are fictionalized, it is based on fact. In 2010, “The Rolling Stone, ” a Ugandan newspaper, at the urging of anti-gay Christian missionaries from the United States, started to publish the names, addresses and photos of suspected gay men. This, in turn, inspired Urch to write this play, which is very real. Chillingly so!
For shockers, the inflammatory newspaper ran the headline “Hang Them” – reminiscent of the “Lock her up!” chants – appearing at the top of each page in bold type.
As you can well imagine, violent attacks – even a murder – followed and the lives of many suspected homosexual men and their families were turned upside down. While the play is set in Uganda, it is only the tip of the iceberg, as such happenings have been taking place, and still are, in countries all over the world for decades, if not centuries. Today in Africa alone, over half of its 54 countries (including Uganda) have criminalized homosexuality, many advocating for life in prison or the death sentence.
Saheem Ali, who grew up in East Africa and is queer himself, is the perfect choice to direct The Rolling Stone. As he told one interviewer during a rehearsal break, Urch’s play had particular resonance for him. “I understand the play’s particular brand of homophobia. I was homophobic when I was growing up. I did not know any openly gay people. It was only when I came to the United States for college – Northeastern University in Boston – that I met gay people.”
As the lights go up on Act One, a rousing religious hymn lets the audience know that religion is going to be a central part of this play. We see two young men in a boat. It is night and the sky is star-filled. From their light banter it is obvious they are on their first date and on their way, tentatively so, to being more than just close friends.
Dembe (a wonderful Ato Blankson-Wood) is an 18-year-old Ugandan. Sam (a cool, calm, and collected Robert Gilbert) with a Ugandan mother and an Irish father, a mixed-race doctor from Ireland. In his late twenties (or is it early 30s?), Sam is the older of the two. He has come to Africa, as he tells Dembe, “to try to do good.”
Throughout this short introductory scene it is obvious that love is in the air. It is also obvious that two men alone in a boat at night are playing in extremely dangerous waters. This is made explicitly clear when Dembe nervously questions whether or not they are being watched. Dropping another ominous clue of what’s to come, Sam takes several pictures of Dembe.
Adding more fuel to the fire, Dembe reveals that earlier in the day, he had attended his father’s funeral. We learn later that a lot less money than expected was left for the family, thereby which greatly lessening the chance both Dembe and his sister Wummie (Latoya Edwards) can continue their education in London.
Adding more subplots than a seven layer cake, we also learn that Dembe’s father was a greatly loved pastor and that his church is searching for his replacement. Dembe’s older brother Joe (a solid and fiery James Odom) is hell-bent, no matter what it takes, in filling that role.
Rounding out this fine cast is Mama, an excitingly explosive Myra Lucretia Taylor. A scheming, self-serving church congregant and family friend, Mama also has a daughter Naome (the deliciously silent Adenike Thomas) who, for some unknown reason, has not spoken one word in the past six months. Having some power in the church, the secret-hiding Mama – only she knows why her daughter stopped speaking – manages to get Joe appointed as the new pastor. Of course, strings are attached.
The expository-filled first act, though well acted and moderately enjoyable, mostly just scratches the surface. Act two does an about turn with a fusillade of deeply heartfelt scenes that pack a wallop, many totally unexpected.
Secrets are revealed. Photos come back to bite. Mama reveals her true colors. Naome shockingly utters a scream. Dembe and Sam come under public suspicion. Sam and Wummie have a confrontation, and Dembe reveals his true nature to both his family and to Naome, as she tellingly hangs onto every word as he unveils his heart.
It is the most intimate, truthful, and beautifully written moment in the play. Fittingly, it takes place on a boat in the quiet calmness of the water.
Most shockingly, though, but not totally unexpected given Joe’s macho behavior as the newly-crowned head of the family, delivers a vitriolic, anti-homosexual sermon to keep his job as the pastor, protect his family and please his congregation . “I ask the Lord what shall be done and the Lord tells me for us to look to our children. Look to our boys and if we see a limp wrist, we crush it.”
At the end of play, as their world appears to be falling apart, Dembe, Wummie and Joe, have no other choice but to leave their fate in the hand of God. Whether this will be of any help, remains to be seen.
Ato Blankson-Wood, Latoya Edwards, Robert Gilbert, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Adenike Thomas and James Udom
Set: Arnulfo Maldonado, Costumes: Dede Ayite, Lighting: Japhy Weideman, Original Music and Sound: Justin Ellington
The Rolling Stone opened on July 15, 2019 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center at 150 West 56 Street in New York. Written by Chris Urch, the play closes on August 25, 2019 Directed by Saheem Ali, the running time is one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission. For more information, or to buy tickets check out www.lct.org or call 212-230-2200.