by Carole di Tosti . . .
Three generations of gay, Black men living together provide the grist in the conflict of Mansa Ra’s lightly comedic drama, …what the end will be, presented at Roundabout’s Off-Broadway venue, the Laura Pels Theatre. Directed by Margot Bordelon, the upscale home of upwardly mobile business executive Maxwell Kennedy (Emerson Brooks) becomes the focal point of the action of the play when Bartholomew Kennedy (usually played by Keith Randolph Smith, portrayed by Jeorge Bennett Watson when I saw it) stays with his son to work through his recovery from cancer.
Immediately, we understand Bartholomew’s sensitivity, as he sniffs a cloth that becomes recognizable as underwear. As Max humorously refers to the underwear, we discover Bartholomew lost his husband but keeps him near, via the scent and suggestiveness of their sensual bond. The significance, initially lost on us and Max, becomes clear later in the production. It is a symbolic linchpin of how loving memories sustain us when we are facing personal cataclysm and emotional pain.
At the outset we meet all those who negotiate this new family arrangement that involves the prickly trial of taking care of Bartholomew, who is consigned to a wheelchair. Max’s gay, white husband Charles (Randy Harris) enters after we meet Max’s vibrant 18-year-old son Tony (Gerald Caesar). With the exception of Bartholomew’s nurse Chloe (usually played by Tiffany Villarin, portrayed by Francesca Fernandez McKenzie when I saw it) the cast is, importantly, all-male.
Mansa Ra confronts toxic masculinity and elements of sub rosa racism in the Black culture in this work through the arc of development in the dynamic among father, son and grandson. Max and Bartholomew have been married to women. In the case of Bartholomew, only after his wife died did he become involved with his husband with whom he had a satisfying relationship. We understand their love when he appears to Bartholomew as a spirit (usually portrayed by Ryan Jamaal Swain, covered by Taylor Blackman when I saw the production). The spirit (played by the actor who is Antoine) hovers around Bartholomew at significant turning points. Their loving and poignant scene together at the play’s conclusion is heart wrenching.
Arguments propel the action forward. Max discovers Tony lied about his flamboyant, cross-dressing friend Antoine being in the house when Max was away. When Bartholomew sticks up for Tony’s friend, who Max disapproves of because he is “out there,” we note Max’s issues. Antoine twerks upending gender identity to the maximum. Revealing the edge of toxic masculinity, Max upbraids Tony not only for lying to him, but principally because he fears for his son’s success in befriending and possibly loving someone like Antoine.
Ra’s Max has a point. The play is set in Atlanta, the South, notoriously “anti-black,” and “anti-gay.” The politics of hate pose a real problem. Thus, New Yorkers may scoff at Max’s archaic response to Antoine. On the other hand, Southerners, even those in Atlanta, which has pockets of extremist political conservatism, are problematic. It doesn’t take much for an extremist to target the “foul,” crossdresser Antoine.
Also, bias may be a part of Max’s disapproval of Antoine as “the other.” After all, Max is light-skinned, tall, well-built and straight-looking. Bartholomew, influenced by fitting in and denying his black, gay identity, married a white woman, but upheld their marriage vows until she died. His selection of a white wife produced the light-skinned Max, clearly revealing his hope to give his son a “leg-up” in a racist culture. Indeed, both Black culture and white culture favor the light skinned. Yet, hypocritically, Bartholomew has issues with Charles because he is white.
The men’s problems with toxic, white/black masculinity are keenly reflected by director Margot Bordelon in the set (Reid Thompson). Two framed paintings on the wall state, “I Am a Man,” one in black letters against a white background, the other in white letters on black. The paintings signify that the family’s identities are in a state of flux.
Charles challenges Max to accept his son’s friendship with Antoine. Max must also confront the news that Bartholomew has been hiding the severity of his illness. He must put away his machismo-inspired stance that all things can be overcome, and he must throw off the artificial values he has lifted up. Indeed, in the face of love and death, they are useless.
In an incredible, heartfelt speech, Bartholomew discloses his condition. We are devastated by his and our own humanity. Jeorge Bennett Watson did a wonderful job creating such empathy for Bartholomew.
Kudos to the creative team that helped highlight the themes and issues in the excellent …what the end will be.
…what the end will be. Through July 10 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). www.roundabouttheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus