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Theatre in Review: The Rolling Stone (Lincoln Center Theater/Mitzi E. Newhouse)

James Udom, Ato Blankson-Wood. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

The contemporary drama bookshelf is positively groaning with coming-out dramas, but in very few, if any, are the stakes as high as in The Rolling Stone. Chris Urch's play is set in Uganda, where homosexual acts or, as the legal code puts it, "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" -- carry a lifetime prison sentence. The action is set in 2010, when a prominent tabloid began publishing the names, addresses, photos, and other personal information of men and women alleged to be homosexual, calling for them to be killed. Distressingly, especially for anyone who believes, this vile effort was supported by evangelical Christian churches.

Dembe, Urch's protagonist, a Ugandan man in his twenties, is about to be swept up in the storm of these events. As the play begins, he has entered into a tentative relationship with Sam, a doctor from Derry, Ireland. (Sam's mother is Ugandan, his father, Irish.) It is a time of change: Dembe and his sister Wummie are studying for the exams that will get them into medical school in London. Dembe and Wummie's brother, Joe, a minister, has been elected to take over the congregation to which the family belongs. None of Dembe's relatives know anything about his private life; indeed, he is under pressure to date Naome, daughter of their close neighbor Mama. But Naome has stopped speaking, for reasons that no one can guess.

The characters exist in a delicately poised arrangement that allows Dembe to quietly live a double life. (Although the script never says so, one imagines that he has one eye fixed on his future abroad.) But the siblings are shaken by their father's death, which lays bare their unexpected financial straits. Then a newspaper -- in real life named The Rolling Stone -- appears; one of the accused, a family friend, is discovered "dead at the side of the road."

It's a perfect tinderbox of a situation, and Urch orchestrates the pressure points with remarkable efficiency and a notable lack of melodrama. Simply introducing the characters makes clear that they are on a collision course that will leave no one undamaged. As many have noted, the action, with its recurring wave of anonymous indictments, carries undertones of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and, indeed, everyone in The Rolling Stone rests on uneasy ground. Following his father's death, Joe assumes the role of patriarch as well as pastor, but he isn't fully comfortable in either role, especially when he learns that payment of his salary will depend on increasing the congregation. Worse, he must break the news to Dembe and Wummie that there isn't enough money for two educations, a situation that forces him to make a Solomonic decision. And when it is whispered that Dembe is under suspicion, the resulting scandal threatens them all, not least because family members can be prosecuted for failing to turn in their gay relatives. There's a terrible paradox at the play's heart: If Dembe and his siblings can face the truth and stick together, their little family will almost certainly be blown apart.

Under Saheem Ali's direction, the tension builds mercilessly as Dembe desperately tries to make the center hold. When Sam's apartment is subjected to a shocking act of vandalism, he offers a way out for them both, but Dembe doesn't believe he can escape his culture or his family: "Tell me there won't still be kids who yell faggot at us on the street," he says. "Tell me we won't still think twice about holding each other's hand in public. Tell me that people won't still be making judgments on us all the time." Later, as the atmosphere of paranoia thickens, Dembe, in an appallingly self-destructive act of deflection, tells Joe that if he were accused of homosexuality, "I would denounce you for you would be no brother of mine...I would tear out your heart and make you consume it again if only to make you understand what real love is." No wonder that, heartbreakingly, he tells Sam, "I'm ruined. Loving you has ruined me."

Joe, knowing that his position depends on his congregation's goodwill, struggles to hold the moral high ground, even when he learns how adroitly the newspaper reports can be used to settle personal scores. As Dembe mordantly notes, homophobia was planted in his culture by the British in the colonial era and has been nurtured by American evangelicals, but, nevertheless, it has found fertile soil in Uganda: A community supposedly devoted to the love of God is, in fact, ruled by fear. Once someone is called a "kuchu," there is no recourse and no escape.

Ali has gotten superbly understated work from all six principals. The gifted Ato Blankson-Wood is a fine Dembe -- wary, watchful, eager for affection, yet all too aware that, simply by existing, he may bring down disaster on everyone he loves. Robert Gilbert is equally good as Sam, especially in a passage when, cornered into making a declaration of love, he angrily provides Dembe with a detailed list of the personal quirks that have captured his heart. Gilbert faces off effectively with Latoya Edwards as Wummie, who knows where Dembe's life is headed and is bent on stopping it. (Unimpressed by his decision to practice medicine in Uganda, she scathingly tells Sam, "You're just a white man painted black.") James Udom's Joe is equally imposing -- his sermons are powerfully delivered -- and haunted by events for which his black-and-white faith has no explanation. Adenike Thomas makes a solid impression as Naome, whose silence poses a challenge to Joe's authority and inadvertently throws Dembe into suspicion. Myra Lucretia Taylor is magnetic and a bit chilling as Mama, a natural manipulator who uses her position of power in the congregation to protect her reputation -- and Naome's.

The uncluttered, yet evocative. production design allows the action to unfold at a headlong pace. Arnulfo Maldonado's set is dominated by a vast upstage scrim, woven with sinuous patterns backed by an expanse of swagged cloth -- all of it constantly transformed by Japhy Weideman's ever-shifting lighting design. Dede Ayite's costumes are intelligently conceived for each character, and, in the case of Mama's eye-searing kinte cloth dresses, real attention-getters. Justin Ellington's sound design includes both his original music and such effects as a thunderstorm and a chorus of "Nearer My God to Thee."

Urch brings together Dembe, Joe, and Wummie for a teasingly ambiguous finale; all three are in peril and none of their options comes without a terrible cost. The last moment, beautifully staged by Ali, is likely to leave you wondering, far into the night, what will happen to these loving siblings, trapped in circumstances they did nothing to cause. Remarkably, The Rolling Stone is Urch's second play; even this early, he looks like one of the season's great finds.--David Barbour

(25 July 2019)

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