The Rolling Stone was an anti-gay tabloid newspaper first published in Kampala, Uganda in August, 2010. Giles Muhame, the Rolling Stone’s managing editor, told The Atlantic in 2011 that the title, a rough translation of a local word, ‘enkurungu’, is “a metaphor for something that strikes with lighting speed, that can kill someone if thrown at them”. The tabloid published the names, photographs and addresses of 100 gay people, calling for them to be hanged and even attempting to link them to acts of terrorism. In November, only months after its first publication, the Rolling Stone was ordered by Uganda’s High Court to stop publishing the identities of gay people and to shut down.
While the court case represented a victory for Uganda’s LGBTQI community and a subsequent law prescribing life imprisonment as punishment for so-called ‘aggravated homosexuality’ has since been annulled by the court, gay people continue to deal with harassment and threats of violence, and homosexual activity is still illegal in Uganda (and in a total of 38 African countries) and some political leaders have pushed to introduce laws further repressing the rights of LGBTQI people.
Presented by Outhouse Theate Co and Seymour Centre, The Rolling Stone is a piece inspired by the publication with which it shares its name and Uganda’s LGBTQI community. It tells the story of Dembe (Elijah Williams), a young local man, and Sam (Damon Manns), a doctor of Ugandan and Northern Irish descent who has come to work in his mother’s homeland. The two have entered into a secret relationship.
When we meet Dembe’s family, we learn that his father has just died, leaving Dembe’s brother, Joe (Mandela Mathia), to take on the role of patriarch. Joe has just been appointed pastor of a local church, called upon to lead as a moral compass for his congregation. Dembe is close with his sister, Wummie (Zufi Emerson), an erudite and spirited young woman. The family is working to maintain their tenuous hold on their father’s house, made all the more challenging by being stuck with his debts.
If Dembe’s and Sam’s relationship was to be discovered, the consequences could be ruinous for Dembe’s entire family. If the Rolling Stone was to stumble on evidence of the relationship and make details public in one of its salacious publications, it will threaten the survival of Dembe and anyone around him who is seen to remain his ally. So, just how difficult will it be for the pair to remain undetected? And who will put themselves on the line and stand with them if they do find themselves accused?
English playwright Chris Urch received the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting for The Rolling Stone. The play had its world premiere in Manchester in 2015and was last year awarded the Off-West End Award for Best New Play, following a critically-acclaimed London engagement. This production (playing until 21 July and directed by the highly accomplished Adam Cook) is The Rolling Stone’s first outing in Australia and lives up to its reputation.
This is one of the most powerful and disturbing pieces to have appeared on Sydney stages this year. Deftly written and wonderfully performed, it is an unrelenting and uncompromising portrayal of oppression. With a deliberate nod to the witch-hunts of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, it is a story of the use of religious dogma to justify and endorse often deadly persecution.
Williams’ wholly focused performance as the besieged young Ugandan man is harrowing to witness but remarkable, particularly as the play moves towards its climax. As his partner and worldly doctor, Sam, Manns makes an impressive debut on the stage. And rather than presenting a singular indictment on Uganda, Urch uses Sam to remind audiences that the struggles of LGBTQI persons in the Western World are far from a thing of the past.
Mathia is strong as the imperious pastor who finds himself in the role of protector of his family, while Emerson brings tenacity and integrity to her portrayal of Wummie. Nancy Denis delivers a terrific performance as Mama, a pious but dangerous member of the church who will do whatever it takes to protect herself – and those to whom she is close – from moral corruption. As her daughter, Naome, who is said to have awoken one morning to suddenly find herself mute, Henrietta Amevor creates a character without a voice, but with a secret, that needs little articulation.
Cook’s direction is never heavy-handed; it ensures our attention is fixed on the characters and the interactions between them in navigating their courses. Nate Edmondson’s compositions support the performances, drifting in and out of the background and subtly but effectively enhancing integral moments. And Isabel Hudson’s stark set of doorways entered and exited affords the perfect backdrop for these events.
The Rolling Stone is an important work reminding us that while some hard-fought gains have been made here at home, the battle for the most fundamental human rights remains a threat to the survival of many across the globe – a situation unlikely to find resolution anytime soon.
THE ROLLING STONE– SEASON DETAILS
DATES: Playing now until 21 July, 2018
TIMES: Tuesday to Friday 7.30pm, Saturdays 2pm and 7.30pm
BOOKINGS: www.seymourcentre.com/events/event/the-rolling-stone or (02) 9351 7940
TICKETS: Adults $42 | Concession $35