New York City Theater
"The Rolling Stone"
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Those two bedrocks of civilization, family and religion, come in for a drubbing in Chris Urch’s moving though unfocused “The Rolling Stone” at Lincoln Center. This is Uganda in 2010, a time between laws that changed punishment for homosexuals from the death penalty to life in prison. (Whoopee!) Also a time when gays were publicly outed.
The title refers to a short-lived newspaper that dared print names, addresses and photos of supposed “kucha” or “queer” people under the headline “Hang Them.” Indeed, one of the accused kuchas is subsequently murdered on the streets.
Dembe (Ato Blankson- Wood), a Ugandan, is having an affair with Sam (Robert Gilbert), an Irish doctor working in Kampala. Dembe’s brother, Joe (James Udom), a fiery preacher apparently encouraged by U.S. Christian missionaries, doesn’t know about Dembe’s proclivities. But their sister, Wummie (Latoya Edwards) eventually does, as does he.
Prodded by a nosy neighbor named Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor) in the kind of vengeful religious snit that persecuted so-called witches in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” Dembe must choose: Be true to oneself or to societal forces. Mama has a daughter, Naome (Adenike Thomas), who has inexplicably lost her voice, a situation Mama attributes to a curse for, after all, “my daughter has led a pious life, a moral life, devout in her beliefs.”
Although the evening can be both touching and thoughtful, it eventually devolves into a less than compelling domestic drama. Its narrow scope tells us little about the government’s motives or the influence of American evangelicals.
Ultimately, “The Rollong Stone” is about love, its distortions and pitfalls. The love between Dembe and Sam is real enough but defeated by the rooted love of tribalism. (Dembe, Joe and Wummie’s mother died some time ago; their father just recently.)
Boiling the explosive situations down, we get familial and familiar lines like Dembe’s saying to Joe, “Sorry you can’t accept me for who I am. “
Joe: “It’s not who you are. You’re making the choice.”
Dembe: “You think I chose this? Why would anyone choose this?”
Rising above the clichés, Saheem Ali directs a strong, convincing cast. Blankson-Wood is poignant in his inability to reconcile his duties with his desires, while Gilbert is an honorable, honest, passionate Sam. Edwards is a sympathetic Wummie, with Udom as an agitated Joe and Thomas a naive, yearning Naome. Taylor has a ball as Mama, not stinting on the character’s nasty prejudices.
Arnulfo Maldoano’s spare set is backgrounded with splashes of African colors. Fronted with protective wire, it also suggests a land and culture designed to maintain an inhumane insularity.
--David A. Rosenberg
August 2, 2019