The stage is starkly empty. Sam (Damon Manns) and Dembe (Elijah Williams) sit opposite each other. Even in the silence, it’s clearly a date. Sam asks Dembe if he feels like they’re being watched, and a titter runs through the audience. This moment of lightness eases the audience into an account that is anything but.
Homosexuality was, until recently, punishable by death in Uganda. While the death penalty has been removed, revised laws still see it carrying a 14-year prison sentence. The key catalyst in the play is the Rolling Stone magazine, which published names, addresses, and photos of alleged homosexuals. Intolerance takes on the dangerous flavour of a witch-hunt in the deeply Christian community, as accusation equates proof, and friends and family are guilty by association. Chris Urch explores a deeply Christian family, nestled in a deeply Christian community, whose existence is totally shifted by their brother loving another man.
The main story arc is the romance between Sam and Dembe, however, the peripheral storylines are just as complex and rich. Concepts of love are examined, thoroughly. Despite the fear and secrecy surrounding their forbidden relationship, humour, affection, jealousy, and old-school notions of romance are all present between the two protagonists.
The love between siblings is explored beautifully through Wummie (Zufi Emerson), Dembe’s sister. Wummie and Dembe are extremely close. Despite her obviously greater aptitude, she is passed over when the family can only afford to send one of the siblings to study. When a distressed Sam turns up to the family’s home, searching for Dembe, she demands to know how he can claim to love her brother when it puts him in danger. Her devotion is apparent. As is her internal struggle with accepting her diminished lot so that her brother can grow. Her speech sits in heavy contrast with Sam’s earlier monologue on why he loves Dembe. Each love rings true. Each love makes seemingly impossible demands on the parties involved.
Concepts of community are also dissected, specifically the demands of church and community, and how people respond when those demands conflict with personal ones. Wummie’s character shines here, rising above her devout Christianity to support her homosexual brother nonetheless. The family’s neighbour, Mama (played by Nancy Denis – who I had the pleasure of interviewing) was an excruciating example of what can happen when intolerance and anonymity overlap.
Mandela Mathia, playing Dembe and Wummie’s eldest brother Joe was a standout for me. I’ve never been to an African church, but my Plus One’s approval assured me his energetic representation of a Pastor was accurate. His first sermon dealt with subject matter you’d expect to hear on any given Sunday at church. He had the other characters joining him in a joyous worship. He capered through the audience, an impressive conduit for the energy in the room. His second sermon, towards the end of the play, was on the abomination of homosexuality. The words were tortured and echoed in the deadly silent room.
The play may begin lightly, but by the interval, the heaviness has set in. The end will have your knuckles white from gripping the edge of your seat. Take the time to fully ingest the emotional offerings of this remarkable piece of theatre, and contemplate the social commentary. It will hurt, but it is so important.
See The Rolling Stone at the Seymour Centre until July 21.
Liv S is a creature of warm weather and negronis. Her interests include theatre, trying new things, and triple utterances.
Disclosure: The Plus Ones were invited guests of The Rolling Stone.
Image Source: The Seymour Centre.