by Lynn on September 22, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Steven Elliott Jackson
Directed by Tanisha Tait
Set conceived by Tanisha Tait
Cast: Conor Ling
Kwaku Okyere

A cracking terrific play that delves into sexual politics at a time when it was dangerous to even talk about them. The production lives up to the play in every way.

The Story. The Seat Next to the King had a huge success at the recent Toronto Fringe Festival (I’m never here for it) but luckily the production is being remounted.

Two strangers meet in a men’s washroom in Washington D. C. in 1964. Bayard Rustin is black, works for Martin Luther King and is gay. Walter Jenkins is white, works for President Lyndon Johnson in the White House, is married and gay, but denies it. Walter is drawn to public men’s toilets in order to satisfy his desire for sex with men. It’s dangerous for both men considering the climate towards gays at that time.

The Production. Tanisha Tait directs this as she did for the Fringe and her work has a lovely mix of sensitivity and muscularity. She also conceived the idea for the simple set in conversation with playwright Steven Elliott Jackson. Two set pieces represent sinks. When they are tipped to the floor and pushed together, with a red covering over them, it becomes a bed in a seedy motel. A chair is up left.

The relationships are established beautifully in Tait’s direction and by the two actors. (Tait has even directed the changing of the set by both men so that it looks like an elegant ballet).

At the top of the production Walter is at a urinal. His back is to us. Bayard comes into the washroom and stands next to Walter. Bayard looks over and down at Walter, checking him out. Then Walter does the same and quickly finishes and washes his hands. He says to himself in frustration that there are no paper towels. It’s then that Bayard engages in conversation and commands the thrust of it. Bayard is in control of the conversation and while Walter says he wants no part of it and wants to leave, he doesn’t. One gets the true sense of each man’s neediness when they are both together in a motel room. Again, it’s Bayard who controls the situation, but it’s not as solid as before. He is anxious that Walter stays. Walter wants to go.

Kwaku Okyere plays Bayard, a flamboyant, confident black man. He knows the tenor of the times and lives within its confines. We know from the conversation he has checked out that men’s washroom and knows that Walter has been checking out the washroom too, so he knows Walter is ripe for engagement. As played by Okyere, Bayard is wily, seductive and compelling.

Conor Ling plays Walter and is uptight, righteous, straight-laced, constricted, restricted and in denial. Walter is just a tight knot of conflicts. Both men have done jail time for their homosexual activity in such facilities.

(A Google search indicates just how differently both men were actually treated. When Bayard was first caught in a men’s washroom he was tried, found guilty and jailed for 60 days. When Walter was first caught (both were caught other times) Walter was fined. Only with another arrest was he jailed).

I think Steven Elliott Jackson has written a thoughtful, unsettling play about gay politics and how some embrace their sexuality and others can’t because of society’s perceptions, fear at how it will affect their job, family and other relationships.

Comment. Steven Elliott Jackson has a keen ear for the language of the times in America.

While Bayard Rustin and Walter Jenkins are real people (both now deceased), there is nothing to suggest they actually met and formed a relationship. It’s to Steven Elliott Jackson’s imagination that the idea took shape. I was reminded also of Tony Kushner’s epic play, Angels in America in which one of the characters, white, married, a Mormon and a closet gay man, secretly looks for sex in parks. Art imitates life. \

Steven Elliott Jackson doesn’t give a neat, happy ending to The Seat Next to the King. He gives an ending that is true and gut wrenching. If you didn’t see this in the Fringe, I urge you to see it now at the Theatre Centre.

A Minmar Gaslight Production in association with the Theatre Centre

Closes: Oct. 1, 2017.
Running Time: 70 minutes.

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1 Eleanor O'Connor September 22, 2017 at 9:41 pm

I missed this at Fringe, but I am so,glad it was remounted so I could catch it.
It is beautifully produced.
Unsettling, but like all good theatre expands one’s empathy.
If you like theatre , this is not to be missed.