By: David Sheward
June 2, 2022: Late in …what the end will be, Mansa Ra’s combination sitcom and soap opera about three generations of gay black men, Keith Randolph Smith as the patriarch Bart Kennedy delivers an impassioned plea to his stubborn son Max to allow him to take the drastic step of assisted suicide to end his misery from Stage 4 bone cancer. The details are excruciating in their exactness, down to the feeling of pain and ache in every part of his body, even the fingernails. Smith does not overplay the horror, but gives the speech with directness and simplicity. You can feel his pain. The objective is clear and the moment is a riveting one.
Unfortunately, the rest of this 90-minute work is flimsy. The plot may feature a twist seldom seen on or Off-Broadway stages: a gay son coming out to his gay father just as the fatally ill gay grandfather is moving in. But the treatment is shallow. The conflicts are introduced, but then resolved quickly with little fuss. There is an opportunity here to examine issues scarcely treated in contemporary theater. What does it mean to be African-American and gay in America today? How do black, queer men balance their masculinity which is challenged by the dominant society, with their racial identity? Ra raises these difficult questions, and barely addresses them.
Instead he settles for sentimental melodrama and contrived guffaws. Apart from being gay, Bart is your typical grouchy, lovable grandpa, full of unexpected randiness and sharp retorts. Smith does his best to endow him with a sage dignity, but Ra surrounds him with syrup, soap and the ghostly presence of his late husband.
As the title indicates, Bart’s life-ending quest provides the main focus, but the character with the most potential for change and turmoil is Max (an attractive, sturdy Emerson Brooks), a financially successful business executive (though we never find out what business he’s in). Max buries himself in work to avoid confronting his father’s imminent demise and his teenage son Tony’s developing sexuality. In addition, he’s on the outs with his white husband Charles (Randy Harrison, also attractive and sturdy). Max cheated on Charles and drinks too much. Charles, in turn, smokes too much and spends nights away from the duo’s luxurious Atlanta home (Reid Thompson designed the tasteful set). That’s all we find out about this couple. Brooks and Harrison are given very little to play or room to grow. Their dilemmas are neatly tied up within the play’s brief running time.
In addition, Max’s story is overshadowed by Bart’s compelling reckoning with death and by Tony’s fiercely flamboyant new boyfriend Antoine (Ryan Jamaal Swain, delightfully extravagant and unapologetically out). Every time Antoine enters, sporting one of costume designer Emilio Sosa’s glorious gender-blurring outfits, we enter into sitcom territory. Tony’s storyline, that of a high-school football star struggling with same-sex attractions, is lost in the shuffle and underdeveloped, despite the best efforts of Gerald Caesar to give him dimension. The cast is completed by Tiffany Villarin, lending some depth to Chloe, Bart’s home health caregiver. Margot Bordelon’s staging is rapid and focused, but fails to add heft to this lightweight end.
...what the end will be
June 2—July 10. Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theater/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue—Fri 7:30pm; Sat 2pm & 7:30pm; Sun 3pm. Running time: 90 mins. with no intermission. $69—$149. www.roundabouttheatre.org.
Photography: Joan Marcus