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The Rolling Stone

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 15, 2019

James Udom and Ato Blankson-Wood
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Don't be misled by the title. Playwright Chris Urch's The Rolling Stone, opening tonight at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is neither about Mick Jagger nor the U. S. popular culture magazine which bears that name. Instead, it is a reference to a Ugandan tabloid newspaper that in 2010 published a front page "exposé" identifying and listing the addresses and photographs of 100 individuals it said were known or suspected of being homosexual, and encouraging assaults on them.

Urch's emotionally-charged play is intended to raise both awareness and our outrage as it examines the impact on one family in a nation that only just recently dropped the death penalty for the "crime" of homosexuality. In it, he presents us with a portrait of a community whose social strictures are rigid, and where prying into your neighbors' personal lives, ostracizing them, and reporting them to the authorities are part of the norm. Harassment and even violence against "kuchus" is common enough to set family members against one another for the sake of preserving that norm.

At center is 18-year-old Dembe (Ato Bankson-Wood), who is in a burgeoning relationship with Sam (Robert Gilbert), an Irish doctor working in Uganda. They meet secretly, under cover of darkness or in Sam's rooms. And while Dembe is well aware of the risk of exposure, he believes he can avoid snooping eyes as he prepares to take the examinations that will allow him entry into university. Joe (James Udom), his oblivious older brother and head of the family following their father's recent death, is a newly installed pastor who has bought into the anti-gay rhetoric and sanctions without question, and readily preaches a gospel of hatred that stabs at Dembe's heart.

There is more to the play than the inevitable descent into danger and darkness, however. We also get to know Dembe and Joe's sister Wummie (Latoya Edwards), who must give up her own academic ambitions in favor of Dembe and take on a job as a hotel maid in order to help make ends meet for the family. And, most significantly, there is the woman they call "Mama" (Myra Lucretia Taylor), a talebearing neighbor who is ready with a smiling face and a helping hand when it serves her purposes, but who is also ready to turn on you if she feels that will meet her needs. Ms. Taylor imbues her with all of the surface gentility and underlying malevalence she can muster. Between Mama and Joe, who at times preaches with determined vehemence directly to the audience, the play does rankle.

The Rolling Stone could do with some trimming. There are tangential plot threads, including a story line involving Mama's daughter Naome (Adenike Thomas), who has been struck mute following a traumatic experience. There is also a backstory provided for Mama that is intended to explain her narrow-minded and vindictive behavior. All of this takes a while to establish, and the first act is weighed down by too much exposition. But the second act is altogether gripping as the walls close in on the family of Dembe and Joe and Wummie, and we are left with feelings of sadness and outrage, as we assuredly are meant to feel. The play may border on the polemic, but given the ongoing struggle for gay rights around the world, including in this country, the hard-hitting tone under Saheem Ali's direction seems just about right.

The Rolling Stone
Through August 25
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge