|THE ROLLING STONE|
Passion practically overwhelms us during “The Rolling Stone,” not just from the six characters onstage at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater dealing with complex issues of morality, religion and family loyalty in 21st-century Uganda, but from the words of the young British playwright Chris Urch, who clearly feels deeply about the many subjects being explored in this undeniably moving play. That we’re not completely overwhelmed during this intense, two-act production is a testament not just to Urch’s skill, but also to Saheem Ali’s taut direction (on Arnulfo Maldonado’s effective yet minimalist set) and the precarious balancing act successful navigated by an extraordinarily talented cast, led by the great Ato Blankson-Wood.
Urch was inspired to write the work by a British newspaper article dealing with a church-and-government-led movement in the early 2010s in Uganda to eradicate homosexuals my whatever means necessary, including murder, and most specifically by printing their pictures, names and addresses in a local newspaper called “The Rolling Stone.” That fear of exposure is the central dilemma facing Dembo (Blankson-Wood), an 18-year-old who has fallen in love with an older, Irish, atheistic doctor Sam (an affecting Robert Gilbert), who has come to Uganda for reasons that are, admittedly, never satisfactorily explained.
On top of the fear of death, there are personal reasons that Dembo cannot come out; it would require turning his back both on the church that has been an integral part of his life, as well as disappoint his remaining family: his older brother, Joe (a charismatic James Udom), who has just been named the pastor of the financially struggling church, and his headstrong sister Wummie (a sensational Latoya Edwards). Also figuring into the equation are Mama (an incredibly powerful Myra Lucretia Taylor), the family’s surrogate mother and neighbor, a seemingly deeply religious woman who has helped secure Joe’s new position, and her daughter Naome (a lovely Adenike Thomas), a classmate of Dembo’s who suddenly lost the power of speech a few months earlier, but understands much more than she initially lets on.
Urch occasionally overstuffs the play with subplots and digressions to the detriment of the Dembo’s plight, which occasionally loses its sense of urgency. For example, I think we all realize how African women are treated less-than-equally without Joe forcing Wummie (clearly, the smarter of the siblings) to abandon her dreams of going to medical school in order to make money as a hotel maid. And the mystery of what happened to Naome – while ultimately quite relevant to the plot – still feels like a bit tacked-on.
Still, Urch’s greatest talent is in drawing all of his characters as completely multi-faceted human beings, and not just Dembo (whom Blankson-Wood brings blazingly to full-bodied life). Joe is clearly torn between his religious beliefs and his need to make the church a success and his loyalty to his brother; Wummie, similarly, places both family and religion above personal grudges; and Mama proves to be a weaker, more hypocritical and yet still sympathetic woman than we are originally led to believe. Intriguingly, though, Urch has said he worked his way into the play through the character of Sam, who ends up being the most underdeveloped person on stage.
“The Rolling Stone” promises, even this early, to be one of the more exciting and rock-solid dramas we are likely to see this year.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Ato Blankson-Wood, Latoya Edwards, Robert Gilbert, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Adenike Thomas, James Udom
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023