By Neha Kale for The Sydney Morning Herald
Updated 3 July 2018 — 3:20pm first published at 2:59pm
Nancy Denis believes art should make us uncomfortable.
Denis, 26 and proudly queer, will play a homophobic character called Mama in the Australian premiere of The Rolling Stone, which explores LGBTQI rights in Uganda — where same-sex relationships are punishable by imprisonment.
Playing Mama, an unwed women who outs the man who impregnated her daughter — an act that gets him murdered, forced Denis to tap deep reserves of empathy.
It also meant finding a way to understand a woman whose politics are violently opposed to her own.
“I had to find the love in her — she believes that the best way to protect her daughter from a life of judgment is to out this man and she doesn’t need a lot of evidence,” she says.
“She’s homophobic, she’s xenophobic but she’s a woman in this village and she’s trying to survive. In the last scene, she makes a confession to a pastor that she’s gone against her morals and that’s a big moment. I want audiences to leave this play with a feeling of real discomfort.”
Denis is warm, passionate and prone to speaking with her whole body. When we meet in her dressing room, she’s finished an intense rehearsal and is quick to swap her character’s conservative ensemble for colourful pants and a leather jacket.
For Denis, the play by rising British playwright Chris Urch is a chance to tell an untold story about the LGBTQI experience.
She was also drawn by the rare chance to work with an all-black cast.
The play owes its title to The Rolling Stone, a short-lived Kampala tabloid that in 2010 published the names and addresses of 100 gay people in Uganda, alongside the words “hang them”.
This has serious consequences for Dembe, a young Ugandan man in a happy relationship with Sam, a mixed-race doctor from Northern Ireland.
The production, which is directed by Adam Cook and nods to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, isn’t interested in easy answers.
For instance, Uganda’s draconian anti-gay laws are part of its colonial legacy. They’re also fuelled by religion. For Denis, the focus on the nature of love and the existence of privilege are among the most compelling parts of the narrative.
“The scenes between Dembe and Sam are so powerful because you have two men of similar age from two different societies — one is born a minority in Western society, and the other is born in Uganda, Africa,” says Denis, who has also starred in the SBS series Cleverman and in the feature film Truth with Cate Blanchett.
“But they love each other in their own way. Even though Sam is a minority, his chances of dying for who he is are a hell of a lot lower than Dembe’s. At the same time, Dembe is witnessing the kind of freedom he could have. During the scenes with his family and Mama, you see his deep spirituality. He is the strongest soul.”
The Rolling Stone, Seymour Centre from July 5 to 21