For God’s Sake
Faith, family, and LGBTQ lives in Uganda
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
In 1950, the Ugandan Penal Code act
made same-sex sexual acts felonies.
Though the law was on the books, it was
not stringently enforced. Then, in 2002,
US evangelical Scott Lively coordinated meetings
with anti-gay extremist leaders Stephen
Langa and Martin Ssempa to implement
anti-gay strategies in the country. It worked.
Over the next decade, the combination of fear
and furor would make being gay in Uganda a
crime that was actually punished with prison
time, destroying lives. Lively would later call
his efforts a “nuclear bomb against the ‘gay
agenda.’” In 2010, the Ugandan tabloid Rolling
Stone published the names of more than 100
suspected gay people, calling for their execution
and prompting violent attacks on people
whose only crime was loving someone of the
same gender. Today, it is still dangerous to be
gay, lesbian, or transgender in Uganda — as
well as other African countries — and just this
month Botswana’s government decided to appeal
a ruling that decriminalized homosexuality.
In spite of the enormous outpouring of celebration
for Stonewall 50 and WorldPride in
New York, it’s important to remember that the
freedom to love openly whom one wants is not
a universal right — and exercising that freedom
can be deadly in many parts of the world.
That’s the central drama in Chris Urch’s new
play “The Rolling Stone,” currently in production
at Lincoln Center Theater under the direction
of Saheem Ali. Set in 2010 at the time
the Rolling Stone article was published, the
story concerns a young Ugandan, Dembe, and
his family — sister Naome and older brother
Joe, who has become a pastor who preaches
against the sin of homosexuality, warning that
gays are recruiting children and poisoning the
culture. Dembe is in love with Sam, a mixedraced
doctor from Ireland who has come to Africa
to try to do good.
Of course, the play is highly political. Given
the subject matter, how could it not be? Yet
playwright Urch told Gay City News, “If you’re
going to do politics in theater, it has to come
through the personal.”
➤ THE BACCHAE, from p.22
Pentheus for his effeminacy, the sexual liberation
he manifests in himself and in the
women, the Bacchae, who follow him. I see
him and strive to portray him as pansexual.
He’s shunned and denied from his family and
James Udom and Ato Blankson as brothers in confl ict in Chris Urch’s
“The Rolling Stone.”
The siblings’ love for one another is challenged
by the revelation that Dembe is gay.
The subject matter is harrowing, but the
themes are universal. All of the characters are
sympathetic, even when their acts are hurtful,
explained director Ali, who said, “You have to
understand people’s actions, and even when
they do very damaging things they are trying
to protect someone.”
his home by being different, by being other.
And because of it he’s forced to seek and create
a family of his own. He has to force people
to see him, acknowledge his existence, to respect
him, and has to go to great and dire
lengths in order to command it. I think those
are qualities many queer members of our audience
Against this foreboding backdrop, the play
is remarkably warm and often comedic. “The
Rolling Stone” is, fi rst and foremost, a family
story, and the characters are nuanced and authentic.
Sam and Dembe’s relationship is loving,
though clandestine. Dembe is frightened
and challenged, but ultimately is able to make
a stand for who he is even as he knows he may
pay a price. The ultimate irony of the play is
that Dembe and his family at the end feel all
they can do is turn to God for help and guidance.
It is, obviously, not the same God being
used to torture and oppress, but this twist
gives the play a larger scope, with a subtle
undercurrent exploring the ways religion and
belief can either help or hurt, or sometimes do
both simultaneously. Urch illuminates this
dichotomy without preaching but rather by
touching the heart.
The company is extraordinary. Ato Blankson-
Wood is compelling as Dembe. James Udom is
powerful and confl icted as Joe, and Adenike
Thomas is passionate and heartbreaking as
Naome. Robert Gilbert as Sam is warm and appealing.
As the outsider, his character serves
an important literary function, but between
Urch’s craft and Gilbert’s performance, he is
consistently real and believable. Myra Lucretia
Taylor is Mama, a powerful local woman who
has helped Joe become a pastor and facilitates
the government’s efforts to identify gay people.
Though she does very damaging things, she is
also trying to protect her daughter. Edward’s
clarity and focus help us see Mama as much a
victim of the systematic oppression as Dembe
and his family are.
“The Rolling Stone” is an important work and
the best kind of political theater. It reaches us
through the deeply personal, and it reminds
us that for many people around the world acceptance
and safety remain a dream.
“There is still a lot of atrocity and bigotry”
facing LGBTQ people, Ali noted.
THE ROLLING STONE | Lincoln Center Theater
at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 W. 65th St.
| Through Aug. 25: Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed. &
Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $82 at telecharge.
com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., with intermission
will identify with and relate to.
THE BACCHAE | Classical Theatre of Harlem |
Marcus Garvey Park, Mt. Morris Park W., btwn.
E. 120th & E. 124th Sts. | Through Jul. 28: Tue.-
Sun. at 8:30 p.m. | Admission is free | cthnyc.
GayCityNews.com | July 18 - July 31, 2019 23