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A CurtainUp Review
The Rolling Stone

where there is light, there is also darkness— Joe
James Udom and Ato Blankson-Wood (Jeremy Daniel)
Uganda, an east African country located on the equator and surrounded by the great lakes of central Africa, was first reached by outsiders when Arab traders arrived in the 1840s in search of slaves and ivory. They were soon followed by English explorers. At first the British East India Company was given the right to administer and develop the country. But when in the late 1800s civil war broke out between Protestant, Catholic and Muslim groups, the British government declared Buganda a protectorate, which it remained until 1962. (The country was Buganda before it was Uganda).

This is a bit of historical background to the more recent historical background British playwright Chris Urch provides for The Rolling Stone, his engaging, but not quite compelling drama making its American premiere at Lincoln Center. This history is important because according to Urch, same sex relationships have been illegal in Uganda only since British colonial rule, adding that over the past fifteen years, homophobia has increased in Uganda due to American Christian missionaries infiltrating Ugandan churches.

The specific incident inspiring the play occurred in 2010 when the Rolling Stone, a tabloid newspaper in Kampala, published on its front page the names, addresses and pictures of known or suspected homosexuals and suggested these people should be hanged. However, the play, under the steady-handed direction of Saheem Ali, does not dwell on the newspaper article but rather how it affects one Ugandan, eighteen-year-old Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood).

Dembe, a closeted gay student, falls in love with Sam (Robert Gilbert), an Irish/Ugandan doctor who has come to Uganda to help his mother's people. Several scenes establish their warm, playful relationship, which shows Sam remarkably and disturbingly unconcerned with what will happen if people discover Dembe is "Kuchu." Themes of Western privilege, God and guilt permeate their talk when they are finished making love.

The most potent scenes in the play are those between Dembe and his family. His sister Wummie (Latoya Edwards) suspects her brother is gay and fears for what will happen to him and the family, but never falters in her support. She even leaves school to work as a cleaning woman so her brother can continue his education. Dembe's brother, Joe (James Udom), has just been made pastor of the local church, thanks to the intervention of the upright and uptight family friend, Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor). Mama expects Joe to be as vociferously anti-gay as she is.

What's more, Joe has promised Mama that through his prayers, her daughter, Naome (Adenike Thomas), will be cured of the mutism that has abruptly fallen on her. Dembe and Naome went to school together, and it seems Dembe has always assumed they are expected to marry. We don't know how Naome feels about this. In fact, we don't know how she feels about anything. And when the reasons for her inability to speak are revealed by her mother, they don't seem especially relevant to Dembe's plight.

Urch, who trained as an actor at the Drama Centre London, creates wonderful scenes for his actors, but he doesn't do such a good job tying those scenes together into a meaningful drama. He never indicates how Mama or Joe have been influenced by the missionary movement he holds responsible for the rise of homophobia in Uganda. Nor does he explain why, despite Uganda's very diverse religious history, homophobia can be directly traced to Christian missionaries or British rule.

While Urch too often leaves characters and ideas undeveloped, and depends on the sympathy of the audience to supply the missing links The Rolling Stone is very powerful at times. Much of this power derives from the excellent performances of the actors, especially Blankson-Wood, Edwards and Udom.

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The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch
Directed by Saheem Ali
Cast: Robert Gilbert (Sam), Ato Blankson-Wood (Dembe), James Udom (Joe), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Mama), Adenike Thomas (Naome), Latoya Edwards (Wummie), Elijah Jones (congregation), Kadijah Raquel (congregation), Cherene Snow (congregation)
Sets: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costumes: Dede Ayite
Lighting: Japhy Weideman
Original Music and Sound: Justin Ellington
Running Time: 2 hours, one intermission
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65 Street
From 6/20/19; opening 7/15/19; closing 8/25/19
Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday at 2pm, Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: $92
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons July 20, 2019

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