The Seat Next to the King: gay interracial sex is more powerful than fear 23 September 2017.
by Drew Rowsome- Photos by Michael Yaneff, ForeshotsPhotography.com
There are few things more gratifying than a specifically political play that is also wildly entertaining. Add two actors at the top of their game and The Seat Next to the King is a must see. Kwaku Okyere and Conor Ling portray two historical figures at the point in time where the civil rights movement was in its infancy and the gay rights movement was just a dream. The two meet in a public washroom and being a cat and mouse courtship that leads to a glorious gay sex scene that is not only erotic but so grounded in well-defined characters that it drives the plot forward and is actually integral to it.
There is no evidence that Bayard Rustin and Walter Jenkins (google them, it is worth your time for a crucial bite of gay history) actually met but it is quite likely they at least met in passing. And it isn't that much of a leap for playwright Steven Elliott Jackson (Real Life Superhero, Threesome) to, in the closeted times when tea room cruising was one of the few options, put them side by side at urinals and then in a cheap motel room. They both were powerful men in US politics who had been sidelined by their gayness. That The Seat Next to the King plays as a historical recreation is a testament to much research and clever subtle exposition, that it is so riveting is due to the dynamic of two characters playing a cat-and-mouse game of desire.
Kwaku Okyere has the showier role, balancing on the edge of flamboyant queeniness and butch assertion. He also gets the best lines. That the comedy is excruciatingly uncomfortable - and hence intensely funny - is due to an unavoidable acknowledgement that the progress in race relations that we are so smug about, has not progressed all that much. He also has to convince us that he could fall in love/lust with a man who is brutally repressed/oppressed about his sexuality (it helps that both are exceedingly attractive men). It is only after the curtain call that one pauses to consider that it is unlikely that a gay man, especially one who seems so in tune with his desires, would invest so much time and energy into a sexual encounter. But that may be revisionist on my part.
Conor Ling is tightly wound and anyone who has desired something intensely but been told it was wrong, will ache for him. His eyes dart, revealing his secrets, and the two volley the lines and movements so smoothly that The Seat Next to the King achieves a realism, so much verisimilitude, that it plays as a documentary. A documentary that is well-written and witty.
There are a few quibbles but again they only surface after the relentless forward motion of the narrative allows for reflection. The narrative of the black man liberating a white man is still an iffy proposition but that they are as equal as they could be in that time period, evens the playing field. And it is crucial that the ideas of race - fetishization, the sense of other, stereotypes - get explored and stated to show just how far we haven't come.
At one point the naturalism is broken and while it is a clever idea and theatrically apt, it only happens once and the crack in the fourth wall pushed the audience out of the play momentarily. Director Tanisha Taitt (Sister Act) keeps the tension racheted with smooth choreography that only reveals itself as staging in afterthought. Even the lengthy, necessary scene changes are solved by transforming them into rituals, uncovering and building with simple props becoming a metaphor for the work the men, and by extension us, have to do in order to connect across arbitrary barriers.
But most importantly, The Seat Next to the King is a crowd-pleaser. This version is a remount of the hit Fringe Festival version and kudos to The Theatre Centre for giving those of us who missed it (it was sold out consistently as this remount will likely be), a chance to see this powerful play. A play that is brutally cathartic in these times where black lives and gay lives are once again under attack, and are still struggling to work together. One longs for a happy ending where the two men had a rom-com ending and then worked to change the world. The Seat Next to the King will inspire and initiate debate and that can only be good.