When James Udom first read the script for The Rolling Stone, he didn’t think he wanted to do it. “I’m just a year out of school, and I didn’t think my character, Joe, was how I wanted to introduce myself to Lincoln Center.” Joe is a passionate young Christian preacher, whose sermon about gays in Uganda is filled with incendiary ideas. “But when I got to the end of the play,” Udom told me the other day after a matinee, “I saw that there was a moment of redemption at least. I changed my mind about wanting to do the play.”

Udom has a diverse background: born in Nigeria, he seesawed during his youth between that country and the United States, finally doing professional theater in the Bay Area and actor training at the Yale School of Drama. His varied life experiences, however, didn’t necessary prepare him for the audience response to his fiery second-act sermon. “It’s been crazy to see all the reactions,” he said. “Some people refuse to look at me. Some people nod their heads along with what I’m saying. Some people are weeping.”

Udom said he was afraid of how audiences would receive his character in 2019. “The sermon is serving its purpose in the story, but I’m still young enough to be sensitive to how people will think of me as a person and as an actor when they see me playing someone like Joe.” It’s turned out, he continued, “that people don’t hate me. They say that even in the sermon they still see the love Joe has for his family.”

Udom’s take on the character has evolved. “At first, I thought Joe was brainwashed. But I’ve realized that he has a deep sense of honor, and a commitment to do the right thing for his family.” Udom said he initially thought Joe was straight-laced but now sees him as perhaps a fun-loving guy with a dark past. “Often, people who go to extremes in their beliefs are rooted at the other end of the spectrum. Their extremism is a type of compensating.”

Crediting the director Saheem Ali, the playwright Chris Urch, and the five other actors in the ensemble, Udom said, “The feedback I have gotten from all of them has been invaluable in the evolution of Joe.”

I asked Udom how he learned Joe’s Ugandan dialect. “Certain parts of Nigeria speak very similar dialects to Uganda, so that was a help. The prosody is similar. I listened to a lot of YouTube videos to get the dialect down, and I have a sheet of sound shifts that I go back to every week to make sure I stay on track with the dialect. It’s easier to speak a dialect in a long speech like Joe’s sermon than in short exchanges with other characters. In a long speech, you stop thinking about the sounds you’re trying to make. They just flow.”

Udom loves the flow of Shakespeare. “As a dark-skinned black man, that was my way in to the theater in a deep way. It taught me valuable skills that no other body of work has done. Shakespeare has challenged me so much.” Udom did Romeo in college, and smaller parts in various Shakespeare plays over the past few years. “I’d love to do the Scottish king some day, and Hamlet.”

How does Udom live his life when he is playing a heavy role in Shakespeare or Joe in The Rolling Stone? “It takes a lot of work for me to get in the frame of mind for this role, and so it also takes a lot of work for me to get out of that frame of mind. So when I’m performing I don’t like to go out.” Recently, Udom made an exception. After a performance, he went to a friend’s birthday party at the Brooklyn entertainment venue House of Yes. “As soon as I walked in, I had a panic attack and had to leave. Joe is living fully in my body right now, and Joe and I just couldn’t be comfortable at House of Yes that night.”

If Udom can’t leave Joe at the stage door every night, how does he deal with the stress when Joe is feeling especially heavy to the actor outside the theater? “I talk to my dad, or to my girlfriend. They help me through it. I’m so grateful to have them in my life, and so grateful to be making my Lincoln Center Theater debut with The Rolling Stone.”

 

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com