Kwaku Okyere (left) and Conor Ling play out the story’s messy contradictions with a hard-earned, palpable chemistry. Photo: Michael Thomas

The Seat Next to the King

NOW Magazine | Editor: Glenn Sumi
Published: September 2016

A white man and a Black man walk into a public restroom. It’s not the start of a joke – because in D.C. in the ’60s, it’s the type of clandestine encounter that can ruin your life.

That’s how The Seat Next To The King begins, a taut encounter between two men trying to find room for desire in a world that pushes them to the fringes. We see them drawn together by a force more powerful than the many barriers – racial, political and sexual – that set them apart.

Their navigation of this attraction is one of the play’s through lines and one capably walked by its two young leads. Kwaku Okyere’s Bayard Rustin wilfully inhabits his own skin because its colour has already made him a target. Conor Ling’s Walter Jenkins hides even from himself, horrified by his irreconcilable urges.

Both characters are based on real men: Rustin was a civil rights advocate for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jenkins served as a top aide to President Johnson, and seats next to their respective kings brought them both opportunity and scrutiny. Arrests for “lewd conduct” kept Rustin off the main stage of the civil rights movement he championed, while Jenkins was eventually forced to resign.

They’re imagined here through performances that are not only technically impressive but charged with the same conflict that makes the play so watchable. Each man is on an agonizing quest for pleasure. Each wants to be seen but resents the way he’s perceived. Okyere and Ling play out this human story’s messy contradictions with a hard-earned, palpable chemistry that deserves acclaim.

These tensions give the piece considerable power, and director Tanisha Taitt always knows where to find the next source of energy, be it eroticism, fear or near-constant frustration. It’s all there – and at just the right moment.

Steven Elliott Jackson’s script is raw and real, though its epilogue feels redundant, vocalizing ideas that the play has already made clear. Still, the bulk of it smoulders with a slick instinct and thematic variations that make the events feel as painfully relevant today as they would have been more than half a century ago.

At one point, Bayard explains that his vision of intersectional equity wasn’t understood by his fellow activists. It’s a mouthful.

“I have a dream, too.”