Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The superb dialogue scripted by Mat Smart in his play Samuel J. and K., produced by Gremlin Theatre, and the stellar performances by Paul LaNave (Samuel J.) and Wariboko Gabriel Semenitari (Samuel K.), create a genuine feeling that these two young men have long-established bonds of fraternal love. They exchange good-hearted jibes, lines from movies that have become inside jokes, and a playful competitiveness that masks deeper feelings.
The play begins on a neighborhood basketball court in Naperville, Illinois, the leafy Chicago suburb where Moms raised her two sons. Samuel J. is dressed in what appears to be his "good clothes," is in a heated face-off with Samuel K., whose jeans are covered up by a graduation gown as they stave off tension in advance of Sam K.'s graduation.
J., as his brother calls him, is proud of his young sibling who has always been responsible and is about to receive a college diploma, but also harbors feelings of inferiority as a drop-out who earns ten dollars per hour at the arboretum. He enjoys working there, reaching into soil and nurturing plants, but knows it is not a job for someone ready to be responsible in life. By his own admission, J. is not ready to commit to his long-suffering girlfriend and goes on a rant about not being ready for anything, even to place his order at Dunkin' Donuts. He turns it into a funny riff to buffer himself from his actual pain.
J. has an ace up his sleeve: his surprise graduation gift for Samuel K., a pair of tickets to fly to Cameroon together so that Samuel K. can experience the homeland he scarcely remembers. Samuel K. is less than pleased by J.'s largesse. He has no interest in finding the parents who abandoned him on the steps of a church. J. promises this is not about searching for his birth parents, but just to know the world in which he was born. Samuel K. finally agrees to go as a concession to his brother's enthusiasm and generosity.
Once there, J. is taken in by the beauty of the land, the openness of the people, and simplicity of life in Cameroon. Sam K. humors his brother, but is clearly eager to return home. He feels not in the least Cameroonian, he declares, "I am an American." On their last night, however, Samuel K. reveals a secret that shatters J.'s tenuous conception of his own life, and compounds the wound with grievously hurtful words. J. flies out into the stormy night. The prospect of a reconciliation remains an open question.
Smart, an affiliate writer with the Minneapolis-based Playwrights' Center, has had two other plays on local stages in the past twelve months: The Agitators, the exemplary story of the friendship between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony staged by Park Square, and the less successful story of redemption framed in the context of old-time baseball, Tinker to Evers to Chance, which was mounted by Artistry. I found Samuel J. and K. to be the most engaging of the three, owing to the sparkling dialogue, the outstanding performances, and Brian Balcom's crisp direction that keeps these two actors in an almost constant pattern of circling around one another, starting out with their frisky competition on the basketball court.
The play also addresses compelling questions about the nature of the bond between brothers that goes beyond the accidents of birth, about cultural identity and finding a match between identity and a sense of home, about parental abandonment, and about growing up and taking responsibility for one's self and one's family (both family of origin and the family we create as adults). That is a lot of ground to cover, and while Samuel J. and K. does not always reach the depth one would hope for, it certainly scores compelling points and prompts continued thinking when the lights come back on.
However, the play requires a suspension of disbelief, starting with the notion that on a salary of $10.00 per hour Samuel J. could possibly have saved up $6,000 he spent on the Cameroun trip. Another issue is more problematic. I could track down only two other productions of Samuel J. and K. since its premiere at Williamstown Festival Theatre in 2010. In one of those, in 2011 at Passage Theater in Trenton, New Jersey, both brothers were played by African-American actors. This suggests a different narrative for Samuel J.'s spin on his enthusiasm for the trip and for his extended stay in Africa. Since in its world premiere, as in the current Gremlin production, Samuel J. is white, one can envision two alternative approaches to the narrative depending on casting. If the playwright had these issues front of mind when writing the play, they are not directly addressed, which feels like a serious, though not fatal, flaw. At any rate, Gremlin's production rises above this considerable pothole.
Paul LaNave, a rising actor with strong chops, portrays the conflicted soul of Samuel J., bruised by his father's abandonment as a child and unable to connect with purpose in his life, while outwardly playful, quick-witted and affectionate. LaNave has boyish, tousle-haired charm, a smirky wise-guy way with a quip, and soulful eyes that can suggest mischief or despair with equal finesse.
Wariboko Gabriel Semenitari made a stirring first impression earlier this summer as an emotionally strong young gay man Underdog Theatre's How It's Gon' Be. As Samuel K., he convincingly essays the cautious trail by which he negotiates life as a black child adopted by a white mother and brother who strive to always be the best, be responsible, and block out any feelings or experiences that might undermine his position in the world. When he finally combusts, it feels wholly earned and authentic.
Carl Schoenborn's set design is bare bones, but his lighting, along with Jacob M. Davis's sound design, add to the play's force, especially when the weather outside is paired with the emotional climate within. Fight choreographer Annie Enneking has guided some very well staged fisticuffs, and the basketball prowess of the two actors, who must make or miss baskets as the script calls for, had the benefit of Lorenzo Francisco's coaching.
Samuel J. and K. delivers the joy of a powerfully performed work of theater that triggers strong feelings around weighty themes. One could wish for some of those themes to be explored with greater clarity, but as it stands, Gremlin Theatre has mounted a stirring production of the work at hand that is well worth seeing.
Samuel J. and K., through August 4, 2019, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Adults - $28.00; Seniors and Fringe Festival button holders: $25.00; Under Age 30 - pay half your age. For tickets go to gremlintheatre.org or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.
Playwright: Mat Smart; Director: Brian Balcom; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney; Technical Director, Set Design and Lighting Design: Carl Schoenborn; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Sarah Bauer; Fight Choreography: Annie Enneking; Basketball Tutor: Lorenzo Francisco; Stage Manager: Sarah Bauer; Stage Manager Intern: Ashlynn Baumgartner; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen.
Cast: Paul LaNave (Samuel J.), Wariboko Gabriel Semenitari (Samuel K.)