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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THEATER Love, magic combine for gay seniors of Kingdom
by Catey Sullivan
2018-03-07

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At the heart of Michael Alan Harris' new play Kingdom, there are two people you rarely see on center stage.

From Aeschylus to August Wilson and beyond, theatergoers won't find many AARP-eligible gay men of color. In Kingdom, Arthur and Henry are seventysomething partners of some 50 years, survivors of the Stonewall Era, the AIDS pandemic and decade after decade of multi-pronged discrimination.

"The stories of these men aren't told," said Harris, 29. "I don't want men like Arthur and Henry to leave this world without having someone try to acknowledge their existence, their stories."

Running through March 31 at the Den Theatre, the Broken Nose Theatre production is directed by Kanome Jones and features Christopher K. McMorris as Henry as well as Watson Swift as Arthur.

"I know I wanted to write a story about gay African-Americans and a play about elderly people because those people are so often invisible onstage, completely subtracted from the narrative," said Harris. "It's like when you turn 60, you're largely forgotten about. But people over 60 fall in love. They have things to say."

Kingdom's plot follows two generations of African-Americans. As Henry and Arthur debate the pros and cons of getting married half-a-century into their relationship, their gay son Alexander (Michael Mejia-Beal) struggles with his relationship with a closeted NFL player (Byron Coolie). The family's story also includes Phaedra (RjW Mays), a plain-spoken lesbian and a devoted grandmother who wants nothing more than to play a part in her baby granddaughter's life.

Harris made it a priority to show that LGBTQ characters are not a unified monolith. As Phaedra puts it, "LGBTQ is a umbrella. We all up under it, but that don't mean we all in the same storm."

"We don't all navigate the world the same way," said Harris. "As a cisgender gay man, I don't have the same struggles a transwoman or a lesbian. I wanted to show that we don't have the same struggles, and how different generations deal with being gay; Arthur and Henry came up during the AIDS epidemic, during the very beginning of gay rights [advocacy].

"Their son is living openly as a gay man at a point in his life that they couldn't, not without putting themselves in danger. Alex can get married legally if he wants to.

"For Henry, gay people getting married is like inventing a new color. He can't even imagine it. He doesn't know what to do with this right he should have always had—now that he has it? He's not sure how to even cope with it," Harris said.

Bringing the NFL into the story adds yet another layer. "Michael Sam was all over the news when I was writing Kingdom," said Harris of the first openly gay NFL draftee. "His situation was intriguing to me. A big part of my research was looking at the history of sports players who identify as LGBTQ.

"Sports—especially football—is such a hypermasculine realm. It's difficult for a lot of people to conceive of someone being athletic and gay at same time," Harris said.

Struggles and all, Harris defines Kingdom as a dramedy.

"I definitely didn't want to make this a play about the woes and sorrows of gay people. I wanted these characters to enjoy living their lives. Really messed up things happen in real life, and we find ways to laugh at them," he said.

Part of the lightness within Kingdom comes from its setting. The play unfolds within spitting distance of Orlando's Walt Disney World, long branded as "the happiest place on Earth." As the title suggests, the Magic Kingdom plays a huge part in Arthur's and Henry's lives. Both characters were longtime employees of the House of Mouse. Their shared home is a trove of Disney memorabilia. One of Harris' scenes calls for fireworks exploding over the iconic castle that is at the heart of the fantasy kingdom.

Harris is currently working on his master's degree at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, but he grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, just a few hours from Walt Disney World. "I was always fascinated by the animated films, how theatrical and grand they were. The whole aesthetic kind of enchanted me," he said.

At its core, Kingdom is a love story, Harris said. "It's cliche, but it's true: Love is love is love—no matter your age."

Broken Nose Theatre's production of Kingdom runs through Saturday, March 31, at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are pay-what-you-can; visit BrokenNoseTheatre.com .


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