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.
The title of the play, which premiered in London to much acclaim three years ago, is inspired by the name of a Ugandan tabloid newspaper that in 2010 published the names, addresses and photographs of 100 supposedly gay Ugandan men, accompanied by the banner headline “Hang Them.” The paper, which bore no relation to the American music-themed magazine, was in existence for only four months before it was shut down by the Ugandan High Court. But not before a gay rights activist identified in the article was brutally murdered in his home as a result of the exposure.
Taking place that same year, the drama depicts the burgeoning romance between 18-year-old Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood, Slave Play) and Sam (Robert Gilbert), an older, Northern Irish doctor whose mother was Ugandan. Although they have been careful to keep their relationship secret, Dembe’s sister Wummie (Latoya Edwards), who, like her sibling, aspires to attend medical school, soon gets wind of it. More dangerously, Sam discovers the word “Kuchu” (meaning “queer”) written on his bathroom walls and that his phone, which contains incriminating photos, has been taken.
As if that situation weren’t dramatic enough, the playwright ups the stakes by making Dembe’s older brother, Joe (James Udom), a pastor who has just been appointed to lead the local church. Joe’s hiring has been carefully arranged by church leader and family friend Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor), who makes no secret of her contempt for homosexuals. “These people recruit, rape and spread disease,” she rants. When Joe delivers his first sermon, it’s a vicious diatribe echoing her sentiments. “They are plaguing us with their acts of violence, their corruption,” he thunders, before resorting to even harsher, more incendiary language.
The role of American evangelicals in fomenting such prejudice and hatred would have been a provocative topic for the play to have tackled, but it does so only glancingly, when Dembe observes that the men who broke into Sam’s home were “fueled by Americans, evangelicals, infiltrating our churches, spreading the devil’s word.”
Instead, there are tedious subplots about Dembe’s friendship with Mama’s daughter Naome (Adenike Thomas), who has gone mysteriously (and all too symbolically) mute for the last six months, and the family’s failing finances, which cause Wummie to give up her academic plans and take a hotel cleaning job. There’s further melodrama in the form of a revelation late in the play about what led to the identification of one of the newspaper subjects, who was subsequently killed. Intended to be shocking, it merely comes across as hopelessly contrived.
The romantic relationship at the play’s center, largely depicted in a series of scenes in which the two men either playfully banter or argue about such things as the existence of God, isn’t sufficiently compelling. The evening runs less than two hours but feels much longer, its writing either lacking urgency or going too far in the opposite direction and feeling bombastic. Characters too often behave inconsistently, and the inconclusive ending lacks the necessary dramatic punch.
Director Saheem Ali has provided little visual atmosphere, with Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design consisting of a mostly bare stage and a large abstract backdrop inspired, as we’re informed in an in-house magazine essay, by the works of Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui.
All this is not to say that the work doesn’t prove arresting at times, thanks to the emotionally charged subject matter and the powerful performances of the ensemble, especially Blankson-Wood as the closeted Dembe and the always superb Taylor as the seemingly beneficent Mama. But for all its good intentions and weighty sociopolitical resonance, The Rolling Stone disappointingly fails to live up to its considerable ambitions.
Venue, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, New York
Cast: Ato-Blankson-Wood, Latoya Edwards, Robert Gilbert, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Adenike Thomas, James Udom
Playwright: Chris Urch
Director: Saheem Ali
Set designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume designer: Dede Ayite
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Music & sound designer: Justin Ellington
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater