ON: The Rolling Stone with Zufi Emerson and Damon Manns

British writer Chris Urch’s award-winning play: The Rolling Stone zeroes in on the city of Kampala, Uganda and brings to audiences internationally, a story of family, religion, culture, sexuality; and the raptures that occur when they violently clash.  Outhouse Theatre (Dry Land) will be bringing this work to life in its Australian premiere this July at Seymour Centre. We had a chat with Zufi Emerson and Damon Manns about their experiences working with the text and their hopes for this production- tune in for some gems!

To say I’m looking forward to this production would be an understatement. What excited you the most about this play when you first read it for your audition?

ZUFI: When I first read this play I was mostly excited because it required an all-black black cast and it wasn’t The Lion King. This play holds a mirror up to a way of thinking that exists everywhere and shines a light on the horror of what happens when these thoughts are acted upon. It is rare that us Aussies, would know the current affairs in Uganda, but this play shows why we should be paying attention to equality globally. After my first read I was educated, heartbroken and wanted to tell this story for the harsh reality it shows us. To be apart of this cast means a chance to put this story on the radar of Aussies today.

DAMON: Simply put, The Rolling Stone couldn’t be a more perfectly timed piece. It speaks to many volumes of struggle and oppression. When reading the play before the audition, it immediately dawned on me that the level of responsibility in telling this story is crucial and accurate to the LGBTQIA+ community in Uganda RIGHT NOW. This play has also been perfectly timed because of the recent legalisation on Marriage Equality in Australia. I also believe that there is a lot changing within society’s view and openness to gay rights which should have been there since day one. This play couldn’t emphasise more the extremes of discrimination against the LGBTQI community.

Zufi, the story we see through your character Wummie- of the woman that makes sacrifices is unfortunately common– what hope does your character’s fire give you for the future?

ZUFI: Wummie constantly battles with the contradictions that love and religion bring. Her moral compass is undoubtedly stretched by what she should do and her ‘instinct’. She wants to study medicine and when told she has to work; as the family can’t afford to have both kids in school- she still is hopeful and studies her chemistry books. She puts her brother before herself constantly; wanting more for him that she could ever want for her self. Wummie’s sacrifices big and small, voluntary or not, are sacrifices that women shouldn’t have to make. For me, sacrificing education is so far from my reality-so inconceivable, that I would ever be in a position to sacrifice something as essential as the basic right to be educated. But this is the reality for many women in developing countries. The Rolling Stone changes these messages from hashtags that float for a month to a message for audiences that hopefully instigates change. From my recent trip to Ethiopia, Wummie’s ambition so closely mirrors that which I saw in my time there– the recognition that education is a gift and the hunger to learn.

Damon Manns & Zufi Emmerson C: Michael Booth
The play explores homophobia and its intersection with religion and culture within the specific context of 2009 Uganda. What value do you think narratives like these have within various communities?

DAMON: Put it this way. Creative license shouldn’t have any limitations.  If we only take narratives that hold tightly to the past or present then we may as well be listening to someone’s shopping list. That’s what I believe anyway. Yes, this play is specific in its context; but metaphorically it speaks on all levels of change of why we as members of the artist, Migrant, African or LGBTQIA+ communities should be celebrated for the bravery of surviving extraordinary circumstances. Its what makes us the people we are and what gives us the ability to tell the stories we do.

ZUFI: After the Australian Marriage Equality plebiscite, I didn’t think inequality for LGBTQIA+ could get much worse. Meanwhile, in Uganda – people were being brutally killed for merely existing. Works like The Rolling Stone show us that there are stories beyond our borders that relate to us here in Australia; it taps into the real shared experiences of how the world is living–the good, the bad and the ugly. The truth is White Aussie blokes and ‘flamboyant’ young men don’t have a monopoly over this conversation. The conversations and questions posed by this play will not be easy for anyone but it’s worse to be silent and ignore this reality than to face it so I hope people have the courage to do so and are empowered by the themes within it.

Damon, what has the process of authentically realising this world been like for yourselves as an ensemble, particularly having a wide representation of the African diaspora within the cast?

First and foremost I would like mention my Director Adam Cook who has given me as an actor everything I could have asked for. His knowledge, guidance, care and sensitivity has been so important in playing the character of Sam. To be honest, getting stuck into this play was something that had to be worked from the ground up. I want to also add I am of African American descent–not first generation African. This gave me a lot to work with playing Sam as he is of Northern-Irish/Ugandan Descent. I strongly related to his sense of displacement, struggling with his own identity – even being called “white” at a rather tense point in the play. Throughout my own life, I have struggled to be in touch with my roots, while at the same time connecting to my Australian roots. I feel very fortunate to be able to play someone that resonates with my own life and upbringing. Besides my own experience, we have been graced with Moreblessing Maturure who has been a wonderful consultant. She has actively aided our experience throughout the play, including the research of the LGBTQI experience and the refugees still fighting today in Uganda. With all of this and engagement with community members, I’d say we’ve all worked together to maintain the level of responsibility and sensitivity this play demands.

Mandela Mathia C: Michael Booth
An all-black cast on Sydney stages! I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen that! What do you hope this production does for the future of the arts industry?

ZUFI: I know! Finally!! I hope it proves that we don’t need to just tell stories that are set in Australia at a specific time and place where only blue-eyed blonde-haired actors fit the role. There’s nothing wrong with the castings, there’s nothing wrong with the acting but it’s the scope of the stories we’re choosing to tell. Our industry needs stories, like the UK & USA that stretch beyond their imagined identity, it’s essential that we stop choosing the stories we’ve heard a million times. When our stories change- the audience has a chance to change. If it’s a modern script in a big Australian city, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t have every shade represented as in our communities. It’s imperative that the narratives we wish to educate and entertain with are chosen carefully; that we take due diligence and do justice to the stories we tell. We’ve known this for a long time and Performers of Colour shouldn’t have to go overseas to do what they love. We should be able to work in our own backyard.

DAMON: This is a big deal on all accounts, not just as an all-black cast. I’m excited for all ethnicities! When we get to the point of telling a story that can be a creative and collaborative blank slate for all to play-I’ll be happy. Writers, writers, writers … They will be the ones to pave the way for progress. That’s my sensitive brain response. On a more selfish note. Hooray for People of Colour! Great to open up peoples minds to a world so far from our own. Refreshing!

The Rolling Stone opens July 7th showing in Sydney at Seymour Centre until July 21st.
Tickets available here.