Taking its title from a firebrand Ugandan rag that became briefly notorious for inciting anti-gay violence, British writer Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone depicts a world where religion, money, prejudice and the complex legacies of colonialism intersect and breed hatred.
Urch focuses on one family: widowed matriarch Mama (Nancy Denis), her evangelical pastor son Joe (Mandela Mathia), and her teenagers Dembe (Elijah Williams) and Wummie (Zufi Emerson), both of whom are hoping to go to college.
But having paid of their late father’s debts, money is short and the family’s standing in the community – which Mama values above all else, even God, perhaps – is becoming shaky.
Against this background a relationship is unfolding between Dembe and Sam (Damon Manns), the garrulous Irish-Ugandan doctor who plucked him from a traffic accident. They make a cute couple when they’re not wrestling over their cultural differences and Djembe’s reluctance to come out to his family.
Informed by his own experience, Sam is an advocate for the no-fear approach. Dembe, who has recently lost a gay classmate to violence, is paralysed by his dilemma. Who can blame him? Here in Kampala, being out (or outed) can get you killed.
The play’s cultural setting may be unfamiliar to many but Urch’s portrait of a family wrenched apart by conflicting loyalties is universal enough. If you know Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, you’ll recognise the fundamental dynamics of The Rolling Stone, and even if you don’t, director Adam Cook’s spare but visually attractive production is very gripping.
Opening night had its raw edges but the emotional terrain of the piece is very well covered and the play’s climaxes capably scaled.
Cook’s production is also a springboard for a wealth of emerging theatre talent. Williams backs up the promise he showed on debut in Black Jesus for bAKEHOUSE theatre in 2016 with his vibrant portrayal of Dembe.
Emerson makes her stage debut in the role of Wummie and it’s a confident and promising one. The same goes for Henrietta Amevor’s playing of the wordless role of a young woman traumatised into a six-month silence and for Manns, who is both charming and catalytic as Sam.
Mathia is terrific as his older brother, bringing fire, brimstone and warm humour to the role of the Elmer Gantry-esque pastor, and Denis – who featured with Mathia in Belvoir’s Sami in Paradise recently – is suitably imperious as Mama and sings stirringly.
Recommended without hesitation.