This is not going to end well, I thought, as The Rolling Stone – a combative new drama by English playwright Chris Urch that equates the forced “outing” of gay adults in contemporary Uganda with the Salem Witch Trials of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – hurtled forward toward an increasingly bitter and difficult ending. The play is inspired by true events, in which the local Rolling Stone newspaper (not the famous pop music magazine) published the names of suspected homosexuals.
At first, I wondered whether The Rolling Stone would feel outdated today. After all, contemporary American gay drama has long moved past the drama of coming out of the closet and the shame and self-loathing felt by gays during prior decades. But The Rolling Stone is set in a foreign environment, with far different cultural expectations and responsibilities. And perhaps that is the reason why The Rolling Stone feels surprisingly fresh and makes for a tight, gripping and discomforting drama. (It is also worth noting that the last show I saw set in Uganda was The Book of Mormon, which was at least a little different.)
Of course, it also helps that The Rolling Stone is receiving a first-class Off-Broadway production by Lincoln Center Theater, directed by Saheem Ali (Fireflies at Atlantic Theater Company, Passage at Soho Rep), with a cast including Ato Blankson-Wood (Hair, Slave Play), Latoya Edwards (School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play), Robert Gilbert (Julius Caesar), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Nine), James Udom (Mies Julie) and Adenike Thomas.
As it begins, circa 2010, Dembe (Blankson-Wood), a teenager whose parents have died and plans to study to become a doctor, is flirting in public (which could be dangerous) with the English-Irish Sam (Gilbert). Dembe has two adult siblings, including Wummie (Edwards), who also wants to be a doctor but may be forced to take up work as a cleaning woman, and Joe (Udom), who just gained a plum position as a local preacher thanks to the advocacy of Mama (Taylor), a family friend with a daughter named Naome (Thomas) who has mysteriously turned mute in recent months.
At first, the threat posed by the Rolling Stone newspaper seems out of reach and not of concern – even after it leads to the ruination of a close acquaintance. But given that Dumbe’s sexuality is more or less an open secret, it soon leads to heightened tension and stress, especially as Dumbe is urged by Sam to run away and start a new life with him and Joe realizes that Dumbe’s outing would threaten his weak grip on his new congregation. At one point, Dumbe rehearses a fire-and-brimstone sermon denouncing gays as dangerous predators. The play’s unresolved ending (in which everything that could possibly go wrong has but the characters look back to their religious faith and each other for strength) is quite effective.
Blankson-Wood (a standout ensemble member in the Diane Paulus revival of Hair who has more recently reappeared as the Duke in the Public Works musical adaptation of Twelfth Night) gives a wonderfully sensitive performance, which contrasts with the tough and strained exteriors displayed by Edwards and Udom. Taylor is an enigmatic figure, affable and supportive one minute and threatening and self-concerned the next. Thomas’s Naome conveys despair and helplessness in the midst of an ever-expanding family crisis. Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design combines the bare three-quarter stage with a tall, curved and multi-layered cyclorama that conveys an exterior that can be alternatively serene and murky.