“Loving you has ruined me” – Dembe
A common symptom of chronic bickering couples, this statement is the firm-fibred nucleus within every character of Chris Urch’s Bruntwood Prize winning The Rolling Stone.
An intimate romantic first date by a lake in Kampala, Uganda as the initial scene: The Royal Exchange theatre the cosy window. Showing until 1 May, the production tells the story of gay Ugandan boy Dembe (Fiston Barek) and his Irish partner Sam (Robert Gilbert). The pair’s punitive and bitterly opposed relationship feeds the belligerent, painful and often tragic fate that beleaguered LGBT Ugandan citizens face.
Love: has varied definitions across the globe. It takes from you; forces you to give up your goals and aspirations, and sometimes makes you pay with the ultimate price – your life. It splinters Dembe in three; makes him fight the battle of choosing between his partner, family and faith. Although the theme of love bleeds through the production, touching every character, the play purposefully meanders through religion, loss, honour and community.
With a total of six characters, all on-stage in the opening moments of the play singing a harmonious acappella, Musical Director, James Fortune avoids instruments throughout the play to such resonant effect. This is mirrored by the simplicity of both set and stage. Director Ellen McDougall uses a raised square-shaped, blue-carpeted platform as the stage. The minimalistic setting makes it easier to place the play in its intended environment, and enables you to focus wholly on the characters.
The humour is instant; it draws and eases you into the humanity of the terrible situation. Dembe and Sam’s charming interactions are infectious, likeable and timely. Dembe’s brother, Evangelist Joe (Sule Rimi), commands the stage with strong presence. With quick wit and intellectual poise, his sister Wummie (Faith Omole) is effective and believable throughout her emblematic, “I know the currency of love better than anything else”.
There is a seamless movement between scenes and characters – a result of an alternating combination of script and lighting. Although the entire cast flourishes into their own characters as the play progresses, the whole production stands squarely on the capable shoulders of Dembe. He is natural and effortlessly commands the role with seismic authority.
What’s poignant is how Urch explores the notion of ‘other’ within LGBT Ugandans – both from gripping and often uncomfortable secular and religious perspectives. In one scene Joe reverberates an outburst of how unnatural homosexuals are: “God wants them burned and buried beneath the ground, one by one.” In the other, Sam tells Dembe that England too isn’t immune from prejudice; “The feeling of being ‘other’ will never truly leave you”.
David Kato, the man whom this production is in honour of, was found bludgeoned to death in his home. His picture had been published in the Kampala-based tabloid newspaper ‘The Rolling Stone’. The paper gained notoriety in 2010 for publishing the names, addresses and photographs of suspected gay men and their ‘supporters’ alongside a sign stating “Hang Them”.
Urch’s choice of title – The Rolling Stone – may appear straightforward but there is more to it. Derived from the name of the newspaper that instigated the tragic outcome of ‘exposed’ LGBTs in Kampala, the title is also metaphoric. ‘The Rolling Stone’ is that ever-latent ‘other-ness’ – the identity of homosexuals that never leaves them, and is always ‘rolling’ with them as the very bane of their existence.
If you think that the world’s battle against homophobia is over, I implore you to go and watch this compelling play guaranteed to shake you awake.
TNT Theatre Review Yasin Chinembiri