In Chris Urch’s ambitious second play, he dives headfirst into the crisis of homosexuality in Uganda. Its title, The Rolling Stone, relates to a newspaper circulating in the capital city of Kampala in 2010 in which suspected homosexuals had their faces printed. During this time, homosexuality was still a crime, with gay people facing the death penalty – that is, if they weren’t murdered by fellow members of the community. Western countries may still be striving for equality, but this urgent piece of writing shows how far the rest of the world still has to go.
At the centre of the story is the growing romance between Ugandan native Dembe (Fiston Barek) and Irish-Ugandan immigrant Sam (Julian Moore-Cook). It’s a touching and believable relationship, balancing the frank intimacy of intercourse with an overbearing sense of fear, the two men forever watching their backs. And where so much gay theatre settles into tired ‘coming out’ stories, The Rolling Stone puts a twist on things. Here, Dembe isn’t struggling to come to terms with his sexuality; instead he’s confident in his feelings, but simply unable to express them due to the oppressive society he lives in.
What’s most refreshing though is that the real focus of the play is the impact of Dembe’s sexuality on his family. You see, not only did gay people face the death penalty, but their family could also face imprisonment. And with Dembe’s family devoted to evangelical Christianity, it’s a toxic environment – though crucially it’s fanaticism, not faith, that’s the enemy.
The Rolling Stone, then, is a moving and powerful family drama that sensitively handles a deeply troubling subject. Urch’s script is full of credible dialogue – remarkable when he’s yet to visit the country himself – and the simple staging highlights the intimate moments and the confident performances that play out with such conviction. As the mute Naome, Faith Alabi does more with one single scream than others can do with a whole monologue, whilst Sule Rimi’s Joe delivers a frankly terrifying anti-homosexual sermon. Faith Omole’s Wummie, though, is perhaps the most interesting character of all: torn between love for her brother and duty to God, she (like the audience) is complicit in Dembe’s relationship, but tragically helpless to assist.
Watch: The Rolling Stone runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 20th February.
Photos: Manuel Harlan