In 2010 Kampala, Uganda, a local newspaper called The Rolling Stone published a front page story outing a number of people in the community known or suspected of being homosexual. The inflammatory piece heard around the world included pictures, names and addresses, forever damaging already difficult lives. Since the time of British colonial rule, same sex relationships have been branded illegal in Uganda, so not surprisingly, this publishing act resulted in widespread harassment and horrific violence against those named, and the families and friends that surround them. Homophobia has been on the rise over the last fifteen years, playwright Chris Urch (Land of Our Fathers) tells us in his Playbill note, most alarmingly due to Christian Missionaries, mainly from America, infiltrating Ugandan churches and spreading their hateful words and proclamations. And their congregations embraced the hatred, and turned on their own people with a vengeance.
From this horrific slice of LGBTQ+ history, Urch has created The Rolling Stone, a new play beautifully directed with passion and spirit by Saheem Ali (ATC’s Fireflies). It sparkles like Mercury, specific and low down in the trenches of a Ugandan family balancing their church’s moral code with their own. God’s eyes look down on them from the starry sky, confusing the outcome of what the statement “you are a man of virtue” truly means to each of the three surviving siblings,. Struggling to stay together after their father dies, they rally and rant against difficult choices to be made. The younger brother, Dembe, delicately portrayed with wise deception by Ato Blankson-Wood (NYTW’s Slave Play), along with his sister, Wummie, beautifully portrayed by Latoya Edwards (Public’s Miss You Like Hell), study hard for an exam that might lead them away from this town to London and a possible medical career. All the while, the two stand and celebrate the rise of their older brother, Joe, strongly played by James Udom (CSC’s Mies Julie) to the honored position of Church Pastor, all with the help of their neighboring maternal figure, Mama, captivatingly played with intensity by Myra Lucretia Taylor (PH’s Familiar).
But we can all feel the waves of the lake getting stronger and more dangerous, rocking the boat fueled by the fear of discovery, even as we are being lulled by the lambent flickering of the love that is glowing and growing between Dembe and the Irish Doctor Sam, gorgeously embodied by the handsome Robert Gilbert (Broadway’s Network). The two cast an energy of engagement that is both touching and intense, giving meaning to the proudness of being a man more true to their emotional core then what is demanded of them, even with the storm brewing on the starlit horizon. The undertow of trouble is hiding out just inches below the water’s surface, and even as we think we know when and how the deadly wave is going to rock that steady (stuck) boat, Urch has a different plan ahead, and the capsizing comes in ways we can’t imagine with a weight that could truly sink a ship.
The horse and the firefly partner together in a dangerous but exhilaratingly passionate embrace, daring its occupancies to stand up and not fall overboard into the deadly waters. Mama’s daughter Naome, delicately portrayed by Adenike Thomas (TheatreWorks’ Freedom Train) has seen the dark current underneath, slamming her into silence all because of a shocking twist of fate brought on by love. I can’t say much in regards to the set by Arnulfo Maldonado (PH’s I Was Most Alive…) as it had some technical issues the night I went. It’s clear that the boat’s floorboards became moored in an unfixable position, forcing the actors to bravely step to the side, altering the blocking to accommodate the obstruction. The redefined pillow fight worked, adding to the balancing act of love and attack, while the costumes by Dede Ayite (Broadway’s American Son), lighting by Japhy Weideman (LCT’s The Hard Problem), and the original music and sound by Justin Ellington (LCT’s Pipeline) was as seamless as planned in its determined navigation through the waves of conflict. “I see you too” is the phrase that ultimately forces the balancing act to end and a moralistic stance to be forcibly taken. The line must be drawn from the water to the stars in order to make a choice between the pastor’s sermon, the bond of family, and the eyes of the religious community they live in. It’s a carefully plodded row through choppy waters, forever surprising us with its harrowing intent and purpose, leaving us breathless, wondering if it will ever be possible for us humans to let each one of decide who we want to partner with, even as those American Christian Missionaries preach their hate and stupidity to the masses.
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