The cast of Lincoln Center Theater’s ‘The Rolling Stone.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
New York City welcomed the world this June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising and the modern LGBTQ rights movement. And though it was a time of both celebration and reflection, for many people living in other parts of the world — Uganda, for example — freedom to express one’s sexual identity is still a far-off dream. Chris Urch’s new play, The Rolling Stone, offers a heartbreaking portrayal of a family at the crossroads of religion and acceptance.
Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) begins a clandestine relationship with Sam (Robert Gilbert), a doctor stationed in Kampala, Uganda, amid a wave of anti-gay violence that permeated the region in 2010. Meanwhile, Dembe’s brother, Joe (James Udom), has just been appointed church pastor, driving a further divide between the siblings once the truth is revealed. Their sister Wummie (Latoya Edwards) is caught in the middle once she discovers Dembe’s secret affair.
Blankson-Wood anchors Urch’s play with a compelling performance, reactively driven by the circumstances that unfold as a nosy neighbor Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor), determined to maintain her social status at any cost, pushes the truth to the surface. As his fire and brimstone brother, Udom is achingly both familial friend and foe, driven by a religious edict that nearly destroys his family.
Director Saheem Ali keeps the pace brisk in a play that could be slightly trimmed and performed without an intermission. Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado creates a simple, atmospheric environment, washed in warm hues by lighting designer Japhy Weideman, though it’s the acting ensemble that truly brings The Rolling Stone to vibrant life.
New York City Pride organizers estimated that nearly 150,000 marched in this year’s parade, proving that there is solidarity — and safety — in numbers. But for those still living in oppressed societies, living one’s truth can be deadly. According to Human Rights Watch, “Violations of freedom of association, assembly, and expression continue in Uganda under President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986.”
The Rolling Stone delivers a cautionary tale of how quickly and deadly our freedoms can be taken away. But it also reminds us how familial bonds can transcend taught fears and prejudices. In its final moments, The Rolling Stone may leave you with more questions than answers as the three siblings face the consequences of Dembe living his truth: questions not only of their fate but why we continue to hate when it’s so much easier to love.
The Rolling Stone
Lincoln Center Theater, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street, NYC
Through August 25
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.