In his playwright’s note for Kingdom, Michael Allen Harris says, “Much of the popular queer media and scholarship focuses on queerness from a white, middle class, and urban context. And so, I took this play ‘home.’” The play, directed by Kanomé Jones, was developed in house as part of Broken Nose Theatre’s new play development program, The Paper Trail. Kingdom is romantic comedy with a touch of family drama. It centers around Henry (Watson Swift) and Arthur (Christopher McMorris), a gay black couple in their seventies, their lesbian niece Phaedra (RjW Mays) and their grown son, Alex (Michael Mejia-Beal).
Henry and Arthur are Disney junkies. Living in Orlando, right next to the Magic Kingdom, they are frequent visitors to the park. The Disney narrative of romance is one they’ve internalized, minimizing the racism rampant in the films while wholeheartedly embracing the consumerism. They love Disney World because there they feel unconditionally accepted and that’s worth a lot to this pair of hopeless romantics.
The intersection of southern black culture (black eyed peas at New Years brings good fortune) and gay culture of a particular vintage (“we did a lot of x-rated shit in the 70s”) leads to dialogue bursting with delicious linguistic juxtapositions. There are charming Southern euphemisms for gay sex (a particularly brilliant one having to do with buttering a biscuit) and an adorable “give me some sugar” routine. There is also a surprising embrace of throwback words like “sissy” which Henry proudly claims, embodying the term in all its coquettish glory. Overall, there’s a refreshing frankness about the way sex and love are discussed in this home. This uninhibited, sex-positive vibe means father and son can breezily riff over whether Batman is a bottom or a top, while the Disney infused romantic atmosphere of the household means outrageous sums are dropped on grand gestures, even when grocery money is scarce. In this loving home over-the-top romantic displays are the currency of love.
Alex, however, is less lucky in love, having moved home to heal from a gut-wrenching break up with his partner of nine years, Malik (Byron Coolie). This has lead Alex to a serious drinking problem that is throwing his whole family off kilter, especially his fed up cousin Phaedra. Phaedra is a boxer, a proud stone butch (cause she has her reputation to uphold) as well as a vulnerable mother. As she strives to finish her interrupted education while caring for her aging uncles, Phaedra privately navigates a painful relationship with her daughter, who rejects her for homophobic reasons.
Kingdom is a comic-romance. There is ton of wordplay and a good dose of silliness set against a backdrop of high stakes situations and weighty revelations. It shares traits with Michael Allen Harris’ most recent Chicago world premiere Punk (produced at The New Colony this past fall) in that his characters fight to find joy in difficult situations. But while Punk was a meticulously structured drama featuring tightly woven interdependent storylines, Kingdom is more free flowing and tangential, much like spending a weekend with family. The first act of Kingdom feels more polished than the second. And while the Henry and Arthur’s story feels completely organic, Alex’s storyline feels strained in places. My guess is the script will be honed through subsequent productions, but it’s hard to imagine a better cast than the one Jones has assembled. McMorris and Swift are a mesmerizing pair and their joy in each other fills the space. Fraught scenes between Mejia-Beal and Coolie dial up the show’s emotional intensity. And RjW Mays does a tremendous job with Phaedra, the overburdened caretaker of the family who’s just yearning for some tenderness.
Kingdom is a play about love, written from a place of love, that showcases a romance not at its shallow Disney beginnings but at the fullness of its potential. And Henry and Arthur’s lifelong partnership is a masterclass on how to live happily ever after.
MICHAEL MEJIA-BEAL | Alexander
CHRISTOPHER McMORRIS | Arthur
WATSON SWIFT^ | Henry
RJW MAYS^ | Phaedra
BYRON COOLIE | Malik
BEN LOCKE | Alexander Understudy
LARRY TRICE | Henry Understudy
TAKESHA MESHÉ KIZART | Phaedra Understudy
JAMES MERCER | Malik Understudy
MICHAEL ALLEN HARRIS+ | Playwright
KANOMÉ JONES | Director
ECHAKA AGBA* | Assistant Director
NIKKI MARQUARDT | Stage Manager
JULIA FARRELL | Assistant Stage Manager
ROSE HAMILL* | Production Manager
DEVON GREEN^ | Props Designer, Co-Scenic Designer
CASWELL JAMES | Technical Designer, Co-Scenic Designer
MARCI RODRIGUEZ | Costume Designer
MICHAEL JOSEPH | Lighting Designer
GROVER HOLLWAY | Sound Designer
RYLEE FREEMAN | Hair & Make-Up Designer
CHLOE BALDWIN | Fight Director
ELIZABETH GOMEZ | Master Electrician