It is a summer Sunday afternoon, I am having brunch with my B-FAM - Brother From Another Mother - at a sidewalk café where the eggs are divine, the coffee is clearing my vision to the day’s brilliance and I am thinking, Why did I sign up to review such a heavy show today? First world problems, right? But wait! One can feel such euphoria when the theatre gods come together making a perfect storm of writing, character development and direction. The Rolling Stone, written by Chris Urch and directed by Saheem Ali, now playing at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, punches that button in the brain that wakes such a tempest, pushes my body forward in my seat and finds me committed to see how this all turns out. Intermission is excruciating; I want my friends back and I really want them to be okay.
As the lights come up on a lake in 2010 Uganda, I see Ato Blankson-Wood is Dembe, a native Ugandan sitting in a boat at night engaging in a game of serious flirtation with another man, a half Irish and half Ugandan doctor on a mission, Sam (Robert Gilbert). Full disclosure: Blankson-Wood is a favorite of mine as he is a power house actor and total cutie patootie perfectly cast here as the tender adolescent-cum-adult straddling imagined invincibility and the consequences of living authentically out loud. Gilbert's acting style is also super honest and quietly powerful. We are with him when he feels fear and goes for his desires anyway. Sexual tension between Dembe and Sam is as high as a giggle. But never mind the man-eating crocs that could be in that lake, because these silly ruminations and dreamy seductive star gazings put Dembe's and Sam’s lives at risk. In Uganda, the punishment for homosexuality is death.
Dembe lives in the center of the fire because, upon the natural death of his deeply devout father, Dembe’s brother Joe (James Udom) is elected the new pastor of his very strict protestant church whose congregation is fully behind the extermination of all “Sodomites.” Instrumental in this choice of new pastor is the brothers’ aunt, Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor). Taylor, to this recovering Baptist, is terrifyingly real in her treachery cleverly disguised as agape love. She scratches at long-healed scars in my belly and perhaps those of several other audience members who actually moan in pain from time to time. During intermission, an usher asks a specific seated section to keep it down so as not to distract the actors. Not our section, of course; B-FAM and I can usually control ourselves. Wummie (Latoya Edwards), Dembe’s sister and Naome (Adenike Thomas), Mama’s daughter, are the women in this story who possess the bravery of youth to still fight for independence; one strongly silent and one fiercely outspoken. Some say Jesus said, let your faith be like that of a child. But dreams, when faith is demonstrated blindly through man-made rules to earn God’s salvation, are crushed like a moth in the palm of an infant.
These characters grow up in a matter of a few days, discovering that love, loyalty and faith are not the same thing. Ali creates moments of urgent kidney squeezing survival decisions as well as tight comic timing (no one laughs in hard times like a close knit family, whether tied by blood or love alone, facing the gallows). Remember how you felt watching The Crucible or, maybe even more intensely, The Children's Hour? Yes, the story is heavy, but we are willingly riveted. When will the love of Sam and Dembe be accepted by everyone everywhere on God’s earth? Is it really never? Really?!
Do not miss this one.
(Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
"The Rolling Stone, which opened to acclaim in London two years ago, is a direct descendant of The Crucible (1953), Arthur Miller's era-defining presentation of the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the McCarthy hearings. (A question posed in “Stone” — “Is the accuser always sacred now?” — is a riff on a line from The Crucible.) The climate of civic hysteria is less palpable than in Miller’s classic, its canvas much smaller and its tension level, for the most part, considerably lower. And Saheem Ali, its New York director, doesn’t sustain the urgency that would disguise the script’s inconsistencies. But it is persuasively acted throughout and confirms Mr. Urch's reputation as a young British dramatist of promise who is still finding his voice."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"The more momentous the subject matter, the more difficult it can be to turn it into compelling drama. That lesson is vividly illustrated in Chris Urch's play receiving its American premiere with Lincoln Center Theater. The Rolling Stone concerns gay persecution in Uganda and certainly deserves credit for its dramatization of a vital international human-rights issue. But despite its important themes, the play never fully comes to life, proving unsatisfying in its dramaturgy and lacking the necessary visceral impact. A drama about a topic such as this one can get away with many things, but dullness isn't one of them."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter