The same story, now a different country. The scenario regarding gay and lesbian characters was established early, with Lillian Hellman’s play “The Children’s Hour,” in 1934, and Basil Dearden’s film “Victim,” in 1961. A lead character is identified as homosexual, and then we, the audience, wait for the inevitable fallout.
That a leading Democratic candidate for president has revealed that he didn’t come out of the closet until a few years ago, when he was already well into his 30s, only shows that there’s still a great deal of angst surrounding the issue — even in the United States. Fortunately, the dramatic charge of having a sympathetic LGBTQ character expelled from society has lost some of its kick — at least in theater. Chris Urch solves that problem by setting his drama “The Rolling Stone” in Uganda. The play had its American premiere Monday at LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse after its 2015 world premiere in the U.K.
The young Ugandan student Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) and his Irish-doctor boyfriend, Sam (Robert Gilbert), are in love and living in Kampala, Uganda. Despite all the homophobia surrounding them, they exhibit a refreshingly frisky approach to making love. They challenge each other in the repression department, however. Sam playfully accuses of Dembe of praying to God after sex. Dembe playfully accuses Sam of taking a shower after sex. Sam playfully retorts that he needs to shower only to wash off his boyfriend’s “come.” This line received a big gasp from the Lincoln Center Theater audience, a group of theatergoers who probably haven’t seen Michael R. Jackson’s envelope-pushing new musical, “A Strange Loop,” or, if they had, would swear off ever returning to the theater.
Urch’s title does not refer to the famed rock magazine but rather a newspaper in Kampala, which, in 2010, published the names, addresses and photographs of local people suspected of being homosexual. Dembe’s predicament as a sexually active gay man is intensified by the fact that his older brother, Joe (James Udom), not only reads The Rolling Stone newspaper but is a new pastor at the local church, where he is prone to giving fire-and-brimstone sermons about the evils of homosexuality, which include warnings of how such people “eat their feces.” I’ve seen a lot of gay-theme plays and movies in my time, but even for me, that is a new one.
Until the expected ax falls on his hero, Urch effectively weaves in other story lines. An older woman called Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor) wields amazing behind-the-scenes power at the church. Her daughter, Naome (Adenike Thomas), has lost the power to speak, having endured her own major trauma. And Dembe’s sister, Wummie (Latoya Edwards), gives up her own dreams of an education to work as a cleaning woman to help pay for her brother’s tuition.
Saheem Ali directs his accomplished cast to resemble thinking human beings even when some of them, especially the matriarchal Taylor, are spouting the most homophobic crap. Thomas achieves real poignancy without uttering a word, and Blankson-Wood and Gilbert are absolutely adorable together.
In addition to its predictable trajectory, however, “The Rolling Stone” offers an ending that is not much more enlightened than Martha Dobie’s suicide in “The Children’s Hour.” Are we to believe that blood really is stronger than pride, not to mention freedom?
In a playwright’s note in the Playbill, Urch suggests a more intriguing story than the play he has written: “Over the last fifteen years…homophobia has risen vastly due to Christian Missionaries [sic], mainly from America, infiltrating Ugandan churches.”
For some reason, those missionaries are included in his five-sentence statement but not his two-act play.