Homosexuality is “a bad habit,” according to Ugandan politician Medard Bitekyerezo — a statement that reflects the homophobia enshrined in his country’s law. Chris Urch’s bullish drama “The Rolling Stone” serves him a staunch rebuttal. Drawing attention to the persecution of Uganda’s LGBT community — who are outed by newspapers like The Rolling Stone and dubbed “kuchus” by the mobs that go after them — Urch manages to push beyond reportage into a multi-faceted drama. High stakes and injustice make “The Rolling Stone” compelling, but Urch’s insistence on seeing all sides makes it morally complex.
Homosexuality has been illegal in Uganda since the 1950s. A year ago it dropped the death penalty, but a new law now forces individuals to out those they suspected of being gay. Urch finds the seeds of a rich drama in that: Does a family report one of its own?
Eighteen year-old Dembe (Fiston Barek) conceals his relationship with Northern Irish-born Sam (Julian Moore-Cook), a doctor working in his mother’s homeland, though suspicions are gathering in the local community. Each day, more names appear in the press, and more photographs grace the front page. Sam returns to a ransacked home, the word “kuchu” scrawled on his walls.
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Urch stresses the parallels with Arthur Miller’s witch-hunt drama “The Crucible” as false accusations fly around the community. Dembe is clearly in danger — one of his classmates is found dead in the street — and his family is at risk by association: His brother Joe (Sule Rimi) was recently appointed pastor of the local church, and his sister Wummie (Faith Omole) is fully aware of her brother’s relationship with Sam.
It’s a play that matches Miller for pressure-cooker tension, too — a gripping, sometimes gaspworthy, story that leaves you morally outraged but also refuses to allow easy, outright condemnation. Urch makes increasingly clear that, just as Dembe can’t chose his sexuality, Joe can’t choose his beliefs, nor Wummie her family. When their money runs out, she’s is forced to leave education — a moment that decides her lot in life every bit as much as Sam’s chance encounter with Dembe does theirs.
Deep down “The Rolling Stone” is a play about privilege. Occasional mentions of colonialism — not least Sam’s insistence on his Northern Irish identity — extend the ideas to those of us in the audience, born elsewhere not by choice, but by chance. Dembe’s final argument stresses the luck of landing in line with prevailing social norms and the ease of the life that follows.
Ease is key, and it’s what makes the relationships in Urch’s play so rich. Barek’s spritely Dembe has the same cub-like playfulness with his lover as with his siblings, a mark of the rarity of finding acceptance as oneself. Moore-Cook becomes breezy in his presence; Omole snaps at him lightheartedly. Ellen McDougall’s direction is keenly aware of the way humor underpins attraction and vice versa.
Urch is a young writer with a classical sensibility and a strong sense of structure. With several subplots running alongside one another, he prevents us getting ahead of a familiar central narrative. But he also writes with a real grasp of theater: The silence of a mute young woman (Faith Alabi) is as real in the room as the hate Joe preaches to us as his congregation, with Rimi stamping his feet and raising hellfire. That it’s all the more real in Uganda makes it doubly harrowing.