When Saheem Ali first read The Rolling Stone his response was complex. He was impressed by the economy of language in this Chris Urch play, and Urch’s ability to shift locations so quickly. “Chris does it so succinctly and beautifully,” Ali, who is directing the drama for LCT, told me during a recent rehearsal break. He also liked the play’s “theatricality of the imagination,” and, he added, “as a director I gravitate toward theatricality.”
The Rolling Stone spoke to Ali for another reason. “It has particular resonance for me as someone who grew up in East Africa and is queer.” The play is set in Uganda, and Ali was raised in the adjacent country of Kenya. “I understand the play’s particular brand of homophobia. I was homophobic when I was growing up. I didn’t know any openly gay people. It was only when I came to the United States for college” – Northeastern University, in Boston – “that I met gay people.”
Ali said he “has sympathy for the characters in this play because I understand what they’re going through. I feel like I potentially have less judgment of them because I’m intimately acquainted with where their values come from.”
At the same time, Ali added, “Chris focuses on a family as a way of understanding societal conflicts.”
As for Ali’s own family: he grew up in Nairobi, the son of an airline pilot. An artistic career was not expected. “My parents wouldn’t let me study theater, so when I came to Northeastern I majored in computer science. When I switched my major to theater I didn’t tell them.”
To be fair, those parents were not averse to a little fun. When Ali was 16, they took him to London, where he saw a production of Grease that, he said, “blew my mind. I loved the spectacle, and the heart of it. I got the cassette of the movie, and when I went back home I did a version of it among my friends. It was the first thing I directed.”
Ali also studied acting, but, he explained, “I found that as an actor I couldn’t shut out the big-picture stuff.” When he got to graduate school, at Columbia, he decided to focus on directing.
Since then, Ali has moved between contemporary work (Fireflies at off-Broadway’s Atlantic, Sugar in Our Wounds at MTC) and the classics (Twelfth Night at the Public, Tartuffe at Playmakers Rep). He said, “I like to do pieces that grab me and say something that is worth putting on in the world. Things that tell stories that haven’t been told.”
“The Rolling Stone,” Ali said, “gives Western audiences a story they might not, on the surface, be familiar with. It takes them to Uganda. There, we find we can relate to people who seem to be living in circumstances different from our own. We find that this family’s situations are similar to those that we all face in some way.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com