Chris Urch’s play, The Rolling Stone, written in 2013, is set in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010. You don’t know that immediately (unless you have read the program). You might extrapolate that you are in an African country which is very anti-gay because we meet a pastor, Joe (James Udom), and a power-focused member of his church, Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor), all too willing to stoke homophobia to keep the congregation numbers steady.
That homophobia is being fanned by the publications of the names and pictures of allegedly gay people by the newspaper Rolling Stone, as really happened at the time.
The complication is Joe’s brother Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) is gay, and in a secret relationship with a Ugandan-Irish doctor, Sam (Robert Gilbert). Dembe’s twin sister Wummie (Latoya Edwards) doesn’t officially know the truth. Naome (Adenike Thomas), Mama’s daughter, knows a lot more than she is saying; indeed, a traumatic incident has meant she cannot say anything.
The tension in this much-praised, U.K. award-winning play, directed by Saheem Ali, is that hoary familiar in any LGBT-themed play: discovery. But that is all Rolling Stone has to offer in terms of tension, and a horrible tension it is. Dembe and Sam are not, at least played here, a relationship we particularly root for. They argue as much as they romantically connect.
It would be much more affecting if we cared about these two, or even if the play examined Dembe’s sexuality and sexual awakening. He seems both naïve, and also all-knowing. The play leaves hanging his own lack of coming to terms with who he is (confusingly, someone willing to both run away with his lover, and also imagine a heterosexual life staying where he is).
Most weirdly, the play is also much happier to spew homophobia than it is to interrogate and challenge it; or even convincingly flesh out a young gay Ugandan character and his relationship. Or look at the lives and experiences of those LGBT people caught up in the kind of anti-gay campaign that Rolling Stone launched in 2010.
Instead, Joe delivers one particularly loud and ugly sermon, and this after long conversations about how wrong and immoral homosexuality is. This may be a true representation of homophobic preaching, but the counter-arguments to this are only sketchily made. They exist silently in our horrified heads as Joe harangues us for minutes on end.
The actors work as well as they can with a script that speaks as pamphlets rather than through people. Its most interesting moments are personal: Joe figuring out his relationship to power; Dembe challenging Sam and Sam challenging Dembe around sexuality and living an ‘out’ life; the spiky Wummie working her way through a thicket of prejudice and love.
The play has an undeniable power (as evidenced in my audience's gasps), but the liberal solution the play proposes is not a challenge to homophobia and bigotry, but that love silently conquers all. It’s a lackluster way out of the play’s melodramatic, anti-gay rhetoric, and The Rolling Stone’s setting is also not as contemporary as it proposes.
Because of when it was written, it ignores the bravery and work of Ugandan LGBT people, who, as The Daily Beast has reported in recent years, have stood up to fight for their rights and equality, at great personal risk, and with some significant advances made.
In the plot of The Rolling Stone, the familiar victims stay the familiar victims, and the familiar bigots get to voice their familiar ugliness all too loudly.