BWW Review: Uganda's Intolerance For Homosexuals Tears Apart a Christian Family in Chris Urch's THE ROLLING STONE
In the second act of Chris Urch's excellent drama about a particularly ugly time in regards to Uganda's intolerance of homosexuals, The Rolling Stone, James Udom is granted what might be considered the most challenging acting assignment to be currently witnessed on a New York stage.
Playing a newly-appointed pastor named Joe in the capital city of Kampala, he, alone on stage, faces the audience and delivers a passionate sermon about the "epidemic rise in homosexuals."
Urch's family tragedy is receiving its American premiere at Lincoln Center's intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, where the audience surrounds the stage arena style in a semi-circle, and director Saheem Ali has the actor standing far downstage, looking directly at patrons as he explains, "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," insisting "It is your duty to save their sick souls." He points directly at some as he emphasizes, "You. You. You."
Imagine the disgust Udom must feel directed at Joe as he expresses to a New York theatergoing audience a desire to have homosexuals placed in pigpens with electrified fences, when, in the reality of the play, his words most likely would inspire vocal responses of approval.
But he plays his role with the believable conviction of a man who honestly sees himself on the side of righteousness.
Long before that uncomfortably climactic moment, The Rolling Stone begins quite romantically, with Joe's brother Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) watching the stars with his Irish-Ugandan date, a doctor named Sam (Robert Gilbert), in a small boat bobbing in a lake.
It's the evening after his widowed father's funeral, and 18-year-old Dembe is feeling relief, "that he'll never know me for who I am."
The inheritance is expected to be enough for both Dembe and his sister Wummie (Latoya Edwards) to attend medical school, especially since Joe, with the influence of their neighbor and mother figure, who they call Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor), has secured the position of new pastor.
But unexpected debts to pay and the news that Joe will not earn an income until he brings in more congregants, means that there is not enough money for both their educations. It's decided that Wummie will take a job cleaning hotel rooms, partially because it is expected that Dembe will marry and support Mama's mute daughter, Naome (Adenike Thomas).
THE ROLLING STONE gets its name from a short-lived Ugandan publication that, in 2010, printed photographs of 100 allegedly gay and lesbian citizens, along with their names and addresses, inciting the public to violence against them. As the relationship between Dembe and Sam grows, so do suspicions about them. Joe is well aware that if Dembe is exposed as homosexual, it will not only endanger his brother's life, but his and Wummie's as well.
This is a play where every character wears their emotions on their sleeves, making for impassioned moments of heightened reality. When Wummie looks at Sam, with his money, his education and his freedom to leave Uganda for Ireland if he desires, she denounces him as a predator and "just a white man painted black."
Sam claims she knows nothing of love and Wummie coldly responds, "Love is getting up every morning making beds, cleaning laundry, wiping feces from the toilet seats of strangers. Love is giving up your hopes, ambitions and dreams for someone else."
It's an extraordinarily moving moment in a play that continually finds ways to pull at your heart.