In 2011, the British writer Chris Urch read a story in The Guardian about a “Kill the Gays” bill up for discussion in the Parliament of Uganda. The legislation proposed the death penalty for those convicted in the African country for “the offence of homosexuality.” “As a gay person,” Urch said, “I was horrified by it, and it led me to research what was going on there.” Urch learned not only about the legislation but about The Rolling Stone, a Ugandan newspaper that in 2010 had published a story featuring names and photographs of gay men under the headline “Hang Them.”
Deeply affected by this research, as well as by the documentary Call Me Kuchu, about the 2011 murder of the Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato, Urch set about to write The Rolling Stone. “My play was inspired by real events, but the characters are fictional,” Urch said. “I wanted to highlight a political issue through a love story between two men and through the conflicting loyalties in a family when one of the members is gay.”
Love stories and family stories are universal, and helped make the political content personal. As Saheem Ali, the director of LCT’s The Rolling Stone, told me, “To have a family is universal. It doesn’t matter what your color is, or your creed or religion or race. Family is always at the center of things.”
Along with the universalities comes the need for specificity. Urch remarked: “As a Caucasian person writing about predominantly African characters I was cautious about approaching this story. However, having done much research and consultation with people from Uganda, I initially approached the story through the play’s character Sam, who is raised in Northern Ireland. He’s our way in to the fact that homophobia and homophobic laws in Uganda are in part a legacy of the British colonial heritage.”
The “kill the gays” legislation (when finally passed in 2014, the bill changed the death penalty to life-in-prison) in part also bears the influence of American evangelical leaders. “Yes,” Urch concurred, “the influence of the West was everywhere in the legislation.”
Examining that Western legacy heightened Urch’s own sense of himself as a British writer tackling his subject. “Of course I’m sensitive to the fact that Ugandan culture is not my culture, therefore undertaking research and consultations with people from Uganda was imperative.” Urch, who grew up in the Somerset village of Midsomer Norton and attended drama school in London, said he “has long been curious about people and places far removed from myself. Part of the reason I wanted to be an actor and then a writer is to get out of myself.” As testament to that curiosity, Urch’s first full-length play, Land of Our Fathers, concerned a 1979 strike by Welsh miners. It opened at Theatre 503 in London, in 2013, and transferred to the West End.
The development of The Rolling Stone was influenced by the actors involved in a workshop of the drama and those involved in the initial production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and later in London. “Actors’ input has been crucial,” Urch said.
The Royal Exchange partners with the property company Bruntwood to award the generous Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, which The Rolling Stone won in 2013. “The submissions are completely anonymous,” Urch said. “Anyone can enter regardless of age, race, sexuality or playwriting experience. I wrote this play when I was on welfare. I had an idea, and tons of passion and anger for the subject matter. Deciding to enter the competition forced me to complete the play.”
“Initially,” Urch said, “I worried that the story the play tells wouldn’t stay relevant. But it has. It was done in Australia during the debate there over same-sex marriage, and in Brazil, which has the highest murder rate in the world of LGBT people. On our planet right now, there’s still tremendous violence against gay people, and there’s a more general upsurge of people’s rights being taken away. This play sadly couldn’t be more relevant right now.”
While Urch benefits from documentary approaches to real-life material, he doesn’t think they are his specific province as a playwright. “In the theater we need to make the political personal. You don’t have to be gay or black to relate to The Rolling Stone. We all have the empathy that comes from being a parent or a son or a daughter. We all experience the emotions that come from those relationships. When I go to the theater I want to feel something and I hope we can do that to our audiences.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com