In Mansa Ra’s new play, three generations of Black gay men live under the same roof – grandfather, father and son. If it’s hardly unusual of late to see Black queer male characters on stage, the unlikely situation of three generations of them in a single family promises a fresh context. It is certainly refreshing to witness their expressions of familial affection, and the appealing cast provides some engaging moments of humor and pathos. But “…what the end will be” ultimately doesn’t deliver on its implicit promise to create more rounded characters.
The characters in “…what the end will be” are faced with enough conflicts to fill several plays.
Grandfather Bartholomew (standout Keith Randolph Smith) has terminal cancer, which causes constant pain, and leads him to want to end his life in a physician-assisted suicide, which his son Maxwell opposes. This is the story that the title seems to be about. But then Maxwell (Emerson Brooks) is in the closet at his high-powered job, and drinks too much, which is why he’s having problems with his white husband Charlie (Randy Harrison) – whom Bartholomew seems to object to because of his race. Maxwell doesn’t get along well with his father and neglects his son Tony. For his part, Tony, 18 (Gerald Caesar), hasn’t told his father that he, too, is gay; he is in love with a fabulous, gender-bending classmate named Antoine (Ryan Jamaal Swain), but Antoine is too out and proud to be together with somebody on the down low. Not knowing of Tony’s feelings, Maxwell objects to Antoine even as just a friend for Tony because of Antoine’s flamboyance.
Any one of these story lines could work as the central focus in its own play. That they’re all presented together doesn’t make “…what the end will be” inherently unworkable. The problem is that the playwright feels the need to resolve nearly all of the conflicts by the end of the 90-minute running time, but doesn’t allow the time for credible character development or nuance. Too few details are fleshed out, or apparently thought through. A small but nagging example: While physician-assisted suicide is legal in six states in the U.S., it is illegal in Georgia, which is where this family lives, yet Chloe (Tiffany Villarin), Bartholomew’s home hospice nurse, more or less jumps at the chance to “witness” his “application” for a lethal prescription. Is there an explanation for this discrepancy that’s omitted from the play, or did the playwright simply neglect to do some basic research?
There is sparse backstory, and some of what we do get is spelled out in the dialogue in a clunky way, as if to save time: “Look at us, Pop,” Maxwell says to his father in the first scene. “You kicked me out right after high school, and here you are in your seventies moving in with me. “
Maxwell has just carried in his father’s wheelchair, and then his father, into his elegant home in a tony neighborhood in Atlanta, full of luxury appliances and African-inflected works of art (kudos to set designer Reid Thompson). The set makes it clear that Maxwell makes a lot of money. We never learn what his job is, but we do see he is insecure about his place in the company, because of his sexuality more than his race. In one of the quick phone calls we see Maxwell having with his white boss, Foster, he scores what he considers a coup when Foster invites him at the last minute to the company’s “executive golf tournament.” This is during Thanksgiving; the family had plans – including attending the football game in which Tony was playing as part of his high school team. But Maxwell takes off. Whether this reflects insensitivity towards his family, or deep insecurity about his job – or both – it feels like a major character flaw, or at least a major stress in his life. And yet at the end, his insecurity at work is resolved with a throwaway line, and he seems cured of his inattentiveness. That’s probably the most extreme example of the abrupt resolutions in the play; others are a bit smoother. But each feels more like what the end should be – what any of us would want it to be – without being persuasive that that’s what it actually would be.
“…what the end will be” might have been better suited to a TV series, which could have allowed more breadth (and breath) to each character as they worked out their issues with each other and within themselves.
….what the end will be
Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater through July 10
Running time: 90 minutes
Written by Mansa Ra
Directed by Margot Bordelon
Set design by Reid Thompson, costume design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Jiyoun Chang, sound design by Palmer Hefferan.
Cast: Emerson Brooks as Maxwell, Gerald Caesar as Tony, Randy Harrison as Charles, Keith Randolph Smith as Bartholomew, Ryan Jamaal Swain as Antoine, Tiffany Villarin as Chloe
Dave Harris’ play won me over right away, because of its hilariously spot-on depiction of adolescent bravado, restlessness, insularity and resentment, as one by one the six Black students in one of the worst high schools in the city report to detention in room 111.
Tommy (Malik Childs) starts flirting with Mikayla (Amandla Jahava), waxing pseudo-poetic.
“Oh we rhyming now? You think you Langston Hughes?”
“Baby you my dream deferred.”
She stings him by reminding him how he pissed his pants in middle school; Tommy retaliates by telling her what Dayrin said about her; Mikayla explodes at Dayrin (Toney Goins) when he shows up, and Dayrin complains to Tommy for betraying his confidence.
Yes, we are back in high school.
It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that “Exception to the Rule” is more than an entertaining updated inner city staging of “The Breakfast Club.” This shouldn’t surprise anybody who saw “Tambo & Bones” earlier this year, the play that marked Harris’ New York stage debut, which wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe as a combination race-conscious satire and apocalyptic sci-fi trickster comedy. “Exception to the Rule” is not rococo like “Tambo & Bones”; just the opposite. It’s spare, abstract even, suggesting such existentialist theater pieces as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The students keep on waiting for Mr. Bernie to show up; he’s the teacher who presides over detention; they can’t leave room 111 until he dismisses them, but where is he?
“Exception to the Rule” adds its own touches; the PA system on the classroom wall squawks indecipherable announcements from… the authorities. The students talk about their fear of leaving the room because of “consequences.”
Even as we understand that the play is meant as a race-conscious metaphor, each character is distinctively and believably etched, helped immeasurably by the first-rate cast, which includes Claudia Logan as Dasani, ebullient and sweet-natured, whom we learn never has enough to eat, and Mister Fitzgerald as Abdul, who gets into fights out of a sense of principle, and dreams of life like that in The Cosby Show; “I mean, it’s fucked up now, I guess. But like they got a family. Big house. Beautiful wife.
Kids running around. Learning from they parents.”
The title of the play refers to the last detainee to arrive, Erika (Mayaa Boateng), whose presence shocks the others. She’s never been in detention before. The others call her “College Bound Erika,” “Read a Book in Her Free Time Erika” and “Take the Test and Fuck Up the Curve for Everybody Erika.”
“Exception to the Rule” is being performed at Roundabout Black Box Theater, which is one floor below Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, where the six members of the cast of Mansa Ra’s play are performing. Had the two plays not been on top of each other in the same building, and had I not seen them one after the other, I might not have thought to compare them, nor noticed that Reid Thompson designed both sets. Thompson’s set for Ra’s play is elegant, detailed, realistic. The set for “Exception to the Rule,” designed by Thompson and Kamil James, is spare, resembling a classroom in a neglected school – cinderblock walls, cheap school chairs with foldout half-desks, faded linoleum floor. It could be a prison holding room, which is surely the point. It also feels haunted, thanks largely to Cha See’s lighting and Lee Kinney’s sound. Yet, paradoxically, this almost-abstract set helps the play feel more anchored in reality.
The characters in “Exception to the Rules “ have deeper layers than those in “…what the end will be.” But, unlike Ra’s play, nothing is resolved.
That seems to be the point – call it the political point – of Harris’ play.
Exception to the Rule
Roundabout’s Black Box Theater through June 26, 2022
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Written by Dave Harris
Directed by Miranda Hayman
Set design by Reid Thompson and Kamil James, costume design by Sarita Fellows, lighting by Cha See, sound by Lee Kinney
Cast: Mayaa Boateng as Erika, Malik Childs as Tommy, Mister Fitzgerald as Abdul, Toney Goins as Dayrin,Amandla Jahava as Mikayla, Claudia Logan as Dasani