Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jul 5 – 21, 2018
Playwright: Chris Urch
Director: Adam Cook
Cast: Henrietta Amevor, Nancy Denis, Zufi Emerson, Damon Manns, Mandela Mathia, Elijah Williams
Images by Clare Hawley
Dembe is an 18 year-old gay man living in Uganda. His family thinks of themselves as being exemplary Christians, but for many in their culture, the killing of homosexuals is not only a permissible deed, it is often exhorted to be a godly act. When Dembe falls in love, the personal and the social can no longer be reconciled. The persecutions illustrated in Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone, are extremely cruel, but we know them to be factual. Urch pulls no punches in his storytelling; the passions are wild, whether evil or virtuous, and we are not spared the worst of human nature, even as we delve into the purest of our emotions.
Much of the play is horrifying and depressing, but an overt theatricality in the production’s tone chooses our minds over hearts, in how it wishes to keep us engaged. Adam Cook’s direction requires of us, a cerebral approach in our appreciation of his show, so that we may come to a greater understanding, of the colossal stakes at play, and of the mechanisms that drive the barbarism being depicted. The Rolling Stone steers clear of ever turning itself into torture porn, ensuring that Dembe’s conflicts and suffering are used, not for masochistic indulgence, but for a greater sociopolitical purpose.
Elijah Williams is a powerhouse leading man, completely captivating with a larger than life presence, and disarming with the extraordinary degree of vulnerability he is able to convey. Dembe’s love interest Sam, of Northern Irish and Ugandan descent, is played by Damon Manns, deeply impressive with the nuance he puts into the portrayal, of a man unable to escape the oppression he has to endure for his sexuality, in both Europe and Africa. The actor delivers remarkable dynamism and complexity, for a role that he makes wonderfully convincing.
Also very endearing is Henrietta Amevor as Naome, the young woman who has lost her voice to trauma. Amevor’s performance speaks louder than words, perfectly calibrated to tell us all we need to know of her secret story. Zufi Emerson proves herself very likeable, pairing an effortless warmth with technical precision, for a surprisingly memorable turn as Dembe’s sister Wummie. Nancy Denis and Mandela Mathia are splendid in more dramatic scenes, both bringing chilling power to the formidable malice they represent in this painful tale.
There are noteworthy technical elements in the production, including Isabel Hudson’s sophisticated take on scenic design that adopts traditional style wings to complement the show’s classic acting traits. Lights by Sian James-Holland give the stage an astonishing beauty, even when the action turns daunting. Ryan Devlin and Nate Edmondson keep music and sound design understated, but there is no denying the efficacy, and elegance, of what they accomplish.
The Rolling Stone is an important story for people of colour everywhere. LGBT activism has achieved exceptional advancements in many white communities, but whether in developing or industrialised nations, there is no question that gay liberation has thus far failed many queer people of colour. The abuse and murder of gay and trans people that occur every day, no longer make the Australian news. With the passage of marriage equality, we have convinced ourselves that the work is complete. Even if we do not wish to spare a thought for atrocities overseas, what happens in the neglected enclaves of black and brown Australia must not be ignored.