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The Rolling Stone

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Rolling Stone

Chris Urch's The Rolling Stone, currently making its debut at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center Theater, has nothing to do with rock music or the magazine world.  It is a poignant look at homosexuality hidden within a young man's desperate private battle between sexuality and his love for family and church. 

In Uganda, attacks on LGBTs was precipitated by British and U.S. missionaries who influenced the country's houses of worship. Increasing in recent decades, homophobia boiled over when a small Kampala newspaper, The Rolling Stone, ran photos of alleged gays in the country, demanding "Kill Them!"   (Inevitably, this reminds many of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and its church-instigated Salem witch trials.)

This production centers on a Christian, church-going community in Kampala.  While the book emotionally accesses the mind, it is the actors who strike the soul with strong, searing and searching performances.  Point zero is the romance between Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) and his Irish-Ugandan lover, Sam (Robert Gilbert), with the discriminatory effect their same-sex love has on Dembe's close-knit family and church.  

Shortly after a respected pastor dies, his eldest son, Joe (James Udom), steps into his father's leadership place in the church and the family.  This includes Joe's younger brother, Dembe and sister Wummie (Latoya Edwards).  Both Dembe and Wummie are studying medicine and share a close, protective relationship.

A neighbor, whom they call Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor), is a strong influence in the community and urges Joe to support the increasing homophobia.  She has a young daughter, Naome, portrayed with fragility by Adenike Thomas.  Naome has suddenly became mute and Mama depends on Pastor Joe to spiritually cure her, while hoping that 18 year-old Dembe will marry the girl.  As for Dembe, however, he is in love with Sam.  

The two men meet for privacy in a boat on the local lake.  One night, as the homophobia increases, Sam, already a busy doctor, urges Dembe to leave Uganda and leave with him to Derry, northern Ireland, where they can live safely.  The discriminatory atmosphere is already dangerous for them in Uganda.  While there are suspicions about Dembe by some, his homosexuality is hidden, trying to be protected from the battle between forbidden love and his church.

As the new pastor, Joe heats up his castigation against the "gross indecency" of homosexuality, persuading followers to join the increasingly frenzied movement.  As the fervor rises to hysterical maliciousness, it threatens the family closeness, pitting Joe against Dembe who is supported by the exuberant and dedicated Wumma.  It reaches a climax after one homosexual activist, David Kato, is attacked and killed in his home and the newspaper publishes photos of local suspected homosexuals.  Seeing Dembe's photo among them and the community rises in retribution. 

The reaction of the family, Joe, Wummie and Dembe is fear, anger, love for each other and finally determination. They throw Bible verses at each other, trying to prove their disparate beliefs until finally, at the end, Dembe makes a decision.  

Directed by Saheem Ali, the performances are strong, particularly the major focuses on Udom as the commanding new pastor, Joe, and young Dembe, played by Blankson-Wood with touching nuance. Yet, many of the characters are not portrayed in depth.  For example, when Mama tells the reason for Naome's sudden silence, it does not involve Dembe or even homophobia.  This subplot seems distracting.

The setting by Arnulfo Maldonado is a blank stage, with spaces crafted to indicate different sites, the church, home, lake.  The deep orange backdrop is enhanced with water sketches of waves and Japhy Weideman's well-designed lighting.  Costume designer, Dede Ayite dresses Pastor Joe in an ill-fitting black suit and Dembe is locally teased about his bright shirts. 

Justin Ellington's original music and traditinal religious humns ("Nearer My God To Thee" and "Down By the Riverside") add a gospel revival feel.    

The Rolling Stone is inspired by a true story about a Ugandan newspaper of the same name that had recently emphasized urged publicizing and killing alleged homosexuals. While Chris Urch's play is gripping, it assumes that viewers are familiar with the Ugandan newspaper or that they have read the small addendum in the program.  

Stressing the universality in Urch's story are similar attitudes continuing today with fury and distruction augmented by inner battles of faith and sexuality.  Thanks to the talented cast, the play delivers an impassioned message.

The Rolling Stone

Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre
150 - West 65th Street. NYC
Preview: June 20, 2019. Opening: July 15, 2019. Closing: Aug. 25, 2019 
Running Time: One hour, 50 min. One intermission.
Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood, Latoya Edwards, Robert Gilbert, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Adenike Thomas, and James Udom.
Playwright: Chris Urch
Directed: Saheem Ali