“Kingdom” is not so much a story about Disney World, and more a story about a perception of the Magic Kingdom, that it can be a place of acceptance as well as wonder for those rejected by mainstream society. The African American family at the heart of this play are a group of shoved aside gay men and women, and though their individual wishes for a happily ever after ring true, their specific ability to reach their dreams is complicated by the society in which they live.
Arthur (Christopher K. McMorris) has been long partnered with Henry (Watson Swift), and he wants to get married, now that it’s 2015, and marriage for the LGBTQ community is legal in Florida. Henry is dying from cancer, and refuses to tie the knot. Their son Alexander (Michael Mejia-Beal), also gay, has been suffering the aftermath of a brutal break-up to closeted football star Malik (Byron Coolie), and he is drinking heavily. Their niece Phaedra (RjW Mays) attends classes while also caring for her aging and ailing relatives, and pushing Alexander to seek treatment. A love of all things Disney unites the family, though deep and hilarious discussions about the homosexual subtext of Batman comics also pepper their conversation. Each member of the family must confront their issues and bring closure to the past before celebrating the possibility of their wanted futures.
Playwright Michael Allen Harris has a clear love and understanding for the family at the heart of his script. The patriarchs’ off-kilter interpretations of Disney characters, as well as their struggle to stay together through turbulent times, is well realized, and lifted to a height of poetry that the audience deeply appreciated the afternoon I was in attendance. While there are few bits of backstory that struggle to fit into the present onstage plot, Harris’ empathy for his characters allows the more undercooked moments to pass without majorly upsetting the viewer’s investment. “Kingdom” is apparently the start of a cycle of plays about under-examined lives, and Harris has a good beginning with this cast of lonely and heartwarming characters.
Director Kanomé Jones has a less sure grip on the material. Though the family members are tightly knit, the interplay between each felt stiff and poorly paced at the performance I witnessed. There was a lot of air left in the middle of some comedic moments, and a lot of space put between characters during intimate sections. It began to feel as if the play was missing dialogue, or as if Jones was not sure how each moment onstage connected to the last. Perhaps time and further performances will iron out this pacing issue, but as of right now, “Kingdom” carries quite a few dead spots in its middle.
This is not fault of the actors. McMorris and Swift shine as the play’s example of true love. They feel as if they have known one another for decades, and their flights of fancy involving the true love tales in Disney movies never feels cloying or overly sentimental, but just right for them. Mejia-Beal as their wayward son could fall into bratiness, but the actor imbues his tirades and poor decisions with an overwhelming sadness that explains his self-destructive tendencies. And Mays as the niece is a highlight. She brings a snap to her long speeches about growing up a butch lesbian that show how her spirit has not been broken by near constant mistreatment.
The community at the heart of “Kingdom” is no fantasy, thankfully. This group of queer family members creates a kingdom with one another, and that is something all of Chicago sorely needs to see right now. When questions about representation and storytelling occur, it is companies like Broken Nose that are willing to produce the intersectional stories that bring out the best in our society.
Company: Broken Nose Theatre
Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)
DIE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A queer, loving African American family faces an uncertain future.