I’m brainstorming with four members of the cast of The Rolling Stone in the dressing rooms at the Seymour Centre.
None of us can name another play set in Africa we’ve seen performed in Sydney.
“The Lion King!” says Zufi Emerson.
“Animals, not people,” says Henrietta Amevor. “And puppets don’t count.”
When I get home, I learn there have been two: Athol Fugard’s Valley Song, staged at the Seymour Centre in 2008, and, more recently, Anders Lustgarten’s Black Jesus, produced by bAKEHOUSE at the Kings Cross Theatre in 2016. You could, at a pinch, add The Book of Mormon to the list.
Regardless, British writer Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone, which is set in contemporary urban Uganda, is a rarity.
The production, by Outhouse Theatre Company, has not come easily, the actors admit.
“None of us are from Uganda, for starters,” says Zufi, who plays Wummi, sister to Dembe, a young gay man facing imprisonment or even death for his sexuality. Dembe is played by Elijah Williams.
“You think, great, we have an all-black cast, we are all going to know how to do this play. But then we get in the rehearsal room and we are saying ‘mate’ and ‘oi’ and you think, hang on, how are we going to do this?
“Even though we have all come from different African cultures, none of us knows Ugandan culture and we needed to be specific with that and get the picture we are making accurate. How elders are treated in Uganda versus where I am from in Ethiopia, could be completely different and we needed to get the accents right.”
To assist, Outhouse Theatre Company, brought in a small team of cultural advisors to check facts, answer questions and nail the Kampala accent.
“I think everyone has aced the accent,” says Henrietta, who plays Naomi, a young woman who chooses not to speak. “I don’t have actual lines in the play but I’ve been in the room watching the others. They all have their own general African accent so they just needed to adapt it.”
Most in the cast are emerging actors, some straight out of acting school.
Zufi was born in Ethiopia before being adopted by an Australian family and raised in Canberra. She came to Sydney to train at ACA (Actor’s Centre Australia).
Henrietta is of Ghanian heritage and born in New Zealand. A youth ambassador for Multicultural Youth Affairs Network in Western Sydney, The Rolling Stone is her acting debut.
Damon Manns is also a student at ACA. He was born in Sydney to an Australian mother and African-American father.
Audiences last saw Mandela Mathia in Belvoir’s recent Sami in Paradise. He arrived in Australia in 2009 from war-torn South Sudan. Last year, he graduated from NIDA. This is his first lead role. (Fun fact: he put the actors of The Wolves through a soccer boot camp.)
West African actor and singer Elijah Williams is best known for his stage work with bAKEHOUSE theatre company and recent shows with Sport for Jove.
Nancy Denis is the most experienced actor in the ensemble. Haitian-Australian, she began her career, aged eight, in Gordon Frost’s production of Annie. Since then she’s performed in Hairspray, The Great Gatsby, Cleverman (SBS) and Sami in Paradise (Belvoir). She’s also worked with Candy Bowers’ company Black Honey and Urban Theatre Projects.
For Mandela, the role of Joe, a preacher trying to hold the family together, is close to home.
He lost members of his own family in the Sudanese civil war and had to grow up fast.
He was 12 when he started working as a “petrol guy” carrying drums of gasoline to cars and filling them up by sucking on a length of plastic hose.
“I was the youngest with two siblings but we all had to work to pay for food and our own school fees,” Mandela says. “My mum was doing jobs, we all pulled together. But I was doing jobs that here would be considered an adult job. I sold shopping bags in a supermarket and I was assistant fare collector on a bus.
“Maturity came quickly for me … I should have been playing or going to school and not working. So I identify with Joe’s struggle. He has lost his father and now he has to take on all the responsibility. He is seeing his brother is something else, something he is not proud of. It will destroy his family. He won’t get a job, and who knows what will happen to his sister? His brother might go to jail or be killed. All this is playing in his head.”
Damon, who plays Dembe’s Afro-Irish lover Sam, says he has been shocked by the play’s portrayal of homophobia.
“I can connect with Sam’s story and his difficulty understanding his own roots but I’ve found it hard to understand the level of oppression around not being able to love someone no matter what their race or gender or sexuality is. I’m closer to understanding it now. But I don’t believe anyone should have a say in who other people can love. It’s no one else’s business but their own.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to listen to what’s happening on stage from the dressing room,” Damon adds. “People think we are on a road to change, but we need to be moving faster and we need to be listening to more people and being open to more people.
“We’re in the dressing room after the show. Eli is a mess. I am a mess. Mandela is pretty affected. When we are sitting in the dressing room like this [he puts his head down on the table in his arms] that means the audience is enjoying it a lot. It’s cruel for us but that’s what needs to happen.”
Zufi says she feels fortunate to have had the upbringing she’s had in Australia and that she doesn’t connect personally to many of the issues raised in the play. But she feels strongly about Wummi sacrificing her education for the family’s sake.
“Instead of studying medicine, she ends up being a cleaner,” she says. “That level of sacrifice isn’t something we come across in Australia. Here we might sacrifice something as part of a charity thing for a week or a month. But this play shows sacrifice as a visceral reality.
“In Australia, education is a basic right, but in a lot of African communities it’s not and it’s the norm that women don’t get educated. So having to explore that with Wummi has been a reality check for me.”
Such developed roles for actors of colour are still the exception in Australia. Mostly the actors say they are offered roles with limited range. A taxi driver. A soccer player. An “angry woman”.
“We have such a long way to go,” says Henrietta. “I haven’t been to acting school. I just love watching plays and I’ve decided this is what I want to do. But when I look around I think why have we been left out?
“I had one agent who told me I’d have to work three times harder to reach the same level as a white performer. Not because of my talent but because of the roles for people of colour. I would find it harder just to get the experience. That’s why this play is revolutionary. We need more narratives that tell our stories.”
Zufi says she wants to be part of instigating change for actors of colour.
“I grew up with only two black women on TV: Carole on The Saddle Club, and music presenter Fuzzy Agolley. No one else looked like me. Where was the black chick with the Aussie accent just telling a normal story about what it’s like to be an Aussie? I want to change that for the next generation of kids and artists.
“As artists we are here to hold up the mirror to our communities, we should be seeing conversations that match our communities. We can’t get lazy with that.”
Mandela says he is content with getting theatre work for now. “It is paying my rent!” he smiles. But he’d also like to do screen work and he wants to see emerging writers in marginalised communities offered training and the opportunity to tell their stories.
“It needs to start there. Approaching that community and beginning to see people in those communities,” Mandela says. “Then you will see their point of view. Just casting more actors of colour in existing stories… that is not really helping.”
Damon agrees. “After doing this play, I am inspired to make theatre about politics and real things that are happening in the world. Stuff that people can gain perspective from… because that is what this play is doing to me right now. Personally, I don’t think there is anything better as an actor than to gain perspective from the roles you are playing.”