The struggle for gay acceptance in Uganda provides the backdrop for a new play heading to Australia. Laurence Barber spoke with the cast and crew of The Rolling Stone to find out more.
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In 2010, the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone splashed its front page with an article calling for gays to be hanged.
Accompanying these claims were the names, photographs, and home addresses of, as the headline put it, “Uganda’s top homos”.
This critical moment in Uganda’s queer history provides a backdrop for The Rolling Stone, a new play centering on Dembe and Sam, who feel like they could be ready to reveal their relationship to the world.
But the newspaper’s hate campaign and the rhetoric of relatives fill them with the fear of potentially deadly reprisal.
Director Adam Cook says the heart of the play is the nigh-impossible conundrum of choosing between living openly and the adolescent importance of family, leaving lingering questions in the audience’s minds.
“What would you do? How would you handle this life and death situation?”
Cook says a number of advisors have come in to rehearsals to ensure that its Australian premiere is mindful of the cultural resonances and specificities that come with the material.
“We all agreed in rehearsal it’s something of an event to have a play with an entirely black cast about really important and interesting issues,” he says.
“It’s going to connect with audiences on a really deep emotional level.”
Elijah Williams, who plays Dembe, says the significance of bringing together a wholly black cast to bring this story to life could make some waves.
“I know for a fact that it’s going to be a very confronting thing for some people in the African community to accept.
“But I’m 100 per cent fine with being part of a cast which challenges their norms.”
Given the recent politicised narratives being created around African-Australians, he hopes the story he’s helping to tell can reach those who need to hear it.
“I want the audience to leave with a sense of knowing. I want them to be challenged immensely,” Williams says.
“It’d be great if we could connect with people of power, because at the end of the day they’re the ones who make the change.”
Queer actor Nancy Denis says she hasn’t had an opportunity like this before, but that it’s exciting to see African stories show up in popular culture.
“We’re getting used to seeing ourselves,” she says, adding that The Rolling Stone is a chance for less familiar audiences to get “a glimpse, a little more knowledge into Uganda and how people are there today, not like, back in the day.”
Cook assures that The Rolling Stone’s humanisation isn’t singularly focused.
“It doesn’t just bash religion,” he says, describing one of the main characters as having devout beliefs himself.
“But he says, ‘How can I believe in a God who doesn’t help me in this situation? Who has nothing to say to me about my dilemma?’”
Cook says that while he immediately recognised the play as a strong piece of writing, it was in beginning work on it that he fully discovered its power.
“I got very angry and very upset because I was thinking about my own coming out experience and how difficult and painful that was. I think that will resonate with people.”
Outhouse Theatre Company’s The Rolling Stone runs at The Seymour Centre from July 5 – 21. Get tickets: www.seymourcentre.com