“These people recruit, rape and spread disease,” Mama says about homosexuals, not realizing she’s talking to one, in Chris Urch’s play, which takes place in Uganda in 2010. That was the year that a group of college students led by Giles Muhame launched a newspaper in Kampala called The Rolling Stone that ran photographs of gay Ugandans, with their names and addresses, under the headline “Hang Them.” One of those named, David Kato, was murdered.
A judge eventually ordered the newspaper to stop publishing these attacks, and to pay restitution to the victims. But homophobic laws and attitudes in Uganda persist.
“The Rolling Stone,” a play running at Lincoln Center through August 25, uses these true events of homophobic hysteria only as a backdrop to a fictionalized story that focuses on an 18-year-old gay Ugandan named Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood.) And that counts as a missed opportunity.
We first see Dembe under the stars, in a rowboat, on a first date with Sam (Robert Gilbert), a doctor from Kerry in Northern Ireland, whose mother is Ugandan. It’s a romantic scene, funny, and charming.
In the next scene, we see Dembe with his older brother Joe (James Udom.) Their father died three months earlier (their mother died long before), money is tight, and they are hoping that Joe will be appointed the pastor of their church. Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor) a neighbor and a church elder, arrives with the good news: He’s gotten the job. Later, Dembe and his sister Wummie (Latoya Edwards) look up at the clouds – much like Dembe and Sam looked up at the stars — and guess their personalities. These scenes introduce us to friendly, likeable characters (and the first-rate actors who portray them.) What they don’t do is tell us much of anything about Ugandan culture, except that it’s homophobic.
So, when the plot kicks in – when Dembe is forced out of the closet and feels he must decide between his lover and his family; when Mama makes those ignorant comments, and Pastor Joe says even worse; when Dembe and Joe exchange Biblical quotes in attack or support of gay identity, and Dembe says “You think I chose this? Why would anyone choose this?” — “The Rolling Stone” feels like a play from an earlier era. Yes, people here and everywhere still struggle to come out to their families; yes, it’s dangerous for LGBT Ugandans simply to live their lives. Those scenes that explore the anxiety and the panic are the most effective. But, perhaps in an effort to make his play more “universal,” the playwright presents too many scenes that most any New York theatergoer has seen before. What would have been fresher and more intriguing would have been to explore more fully the specific time and place – especially when one learns that the British colonists introduced homophobia in the 19thcentury to what was previously a gay-friendly society…and the current virulence of anti-gay hatred is reportedly due in part to the increasing influence of evangelical Americans in the African nation’s churches. There are just one or two throwaway lines about all that in “The Rolling Stone.”
The Rolling Stone
Written by Chris Urch; Directed by Saheem Ali
Sets by Arnulfo Maldonado, costumes by Dede Ayite, lighting by
Japhy Weideman, original music and sound by Justin Ellington, stage manager
Narda E. Alcorn
Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood, Latoya Edwards, Robert Gilbert, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Adenike Thomas and James Udom
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes including an intermission.
The Rolling Stone is on stage through August 25, 2019