History: In pre-Colonial society, homosexuality was commonly accepted in Uganda and neighboring countries. Laws prohibiting same-sex sexual acts were first put in place under British rule in the 19th century and later enshrined in the Penal Code Act 1950. By 2009, the death penalty was invoked. Though declared unconstitutional, witch hunts, harassments, violence, and extrajudicial executions remain.
October 2010 from CNN: Earlier this month, Rolling Stone newspaper — not affiliated with the U.S. magazine with the same name — featured 100 pictures of Uganda’s gays and lesbians. Next to the list was a yellow strip with the words “hang them.” This is real news.
The Play: Kampala, Uganda 2010. We hear the hymn “Closer My God to Thee.” Eighteen year-old student Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) and thirty something doctor, Sam (Robert Gilbert), are trysting under the stars. This is a burgeoning relationship not a tinder swipe. Dembe is a local black man. Sam, though he has a Ugandan mother, is white Irish, in country temporarily.
Their meeting is clandestine, romantic, the young man uncomfortable. He was raised a good Christian. They might be observed. “You see that bright bugger,” Sam says pointing out a star. “It’s honest. It knows what it is.”
Dembe and his sister, Wummie (Latoya Edwards), live in a household run by older brother, Joe (James Udom), recently appointed pastor of their church through the machinations of a highly conservative neighbor affectionately called Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor). As their deceased father left nothing, one of the bright, closely bound siblings will have to give up a dream of medical school. The world is closing in.
Joe and Wummie actively push aside inklings their brother may be gay with male bonding boxing, encouragement to date, and advice about women. Except for flamboyant shirts, Dembe plays the part well.
Mama arrives waving the Rolling Stone that outs gays. The first vigilante murder follows. She demands Joe’s support declaiming the abomination of homosexuality. “There’s no disgrace in coming forward to proclaim your sin,” he initially preaches. Dembe begins to look over his shoulder.
Pressed, Joe’s evangelism grows fiery. “If we see a limp wrist, we crush it and put them in pigpens,” he repulsively declares to his congregation/the audience, breaking the fourth wall. Between lies the story.
What happens when a man not yet fully formed must choose between his family, God, and his own true nature? Will that family stand by the pariah over sacrament in the face of a violently castigating community? Will he flee? Will they?
Mama’s daughter, Naome (Adenike Thomas), who hasn’t spoken in six months ties in shockingly, but only at the very end. Until then, the girl floats through without explanation. In an unsuccessful effort to appear traumatized, this actress is the only one onstage who appears blank/ unengaged throughout.
Playwright Chris Urch depicts a compelling example of lethal bigotry at human scale. Characters are solid, history detailed, choices wrenching. The piece is effectively peppered with excerpts from spirituals, one in Ugandan. Its surprise ending leaves just enough to the imagination to find us questioning and cringing as we exit.
Shameful witch hunts based on race, religion, sexual proclivity continue all over the world. Intimate chronicles are more effective reminders than unfathomable statistics. This is one.
Ato Blankson-Wood (Dembe) is completely natural, credibly juggling a pendulum swing between cocky, coltish youth and a lifetime of familial hegemony.
As Joe, the always skillful James Udom viscerally struggles against what he feels he must do to survive, vibrating with appalling realism. A terrific theatrical turn.
Myra Lucretia Taylor creates the self-righteous Mama with unquestioned presence and zeal.
Saheem Ali has directed the piece with a calm, sure hand. Staging is creative, yet rational, limited physical contact telling, pacing deft. Excepting Naome, every character inhabits his/her skin.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set/backdrop is comprised of undulating, gnarly wirework and cloth which emulates varied, often treacherous landscape. Lighting by Japhy Weidman adroitly brings it to life and mood.
Dialect Coach Barbara Rubin does a masterful job with both Ugandan and Irish accents.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Back Row: Adenike Thomas (Naome), James Udom (Joe), Robert Gilbert (Sam) Front Row: Latoya Edwards (Wummie), Ato Blankson-Wood (Dembe), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Mama)
Lincoln Center Theater presents
The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch
Directed by Saheem Ali
Through August 25, 2019
The Mitzi E. Newhouse