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THE SEAT NEXT TO THE KING at New Phoenix is one of those plays you could talk about all night long

THE BASICS: THE SEAT NEXT TO THE KING, a one-act play by Steven Elliot Jackson, directed by Todd Fuller, starring Robert Cooke and Xavier Harris runs through June 29, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. (Thursdays are “pay-what-you-can”) at the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park (853-1334). www.newphoenixtheatre.org Runtime: 75 minutes without intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  From the New Phoenix Theatre’s website: “In 1964, a white man walks into a public restroom in a Washington, DC park looking for sex. The next man who enters is a black man.

THE SEAT NEXT TO THE KING explores the lives of two men who literally sat next to the most powerful men in America. Bayard Rustin, a friend to Martin Luther King Jr. and the organizer of the March on Washington, and Walter Jenkins, top aide and friend to President Lyndon Johnson, meet in that restroom, although neither knows the other’s identity yet. Each is a symbol of hope and change in 1964, and each is conflicted about his sexuality.

The two men move to a motel on the outskirts of the park, where they begin to confide in each other, a revealing of their lives which evolves into an intimate evening of release.

They won’t see each other again for eighteen years, when they meet by chance — in another restroom — near the end of their lives, during an era when the hope of a better world has vanished.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: First off, the actors are a joy to watch. You may have not seen Bobby Cooke before in such a serious, realistic role. All of my previous experiences seeing Cooke were in comedic/fantasy realms such as A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM or BIG FISH or as “Elephant” with his friend “Piggie” and more recently as “Baloo” the bumbling bear. So, if you’re also a fan, you’ll want to see him strut his acting chops as the hyper-vigilant, nervous, quivering “Walter Jenkins.”

Xavier Harris, who has only been acting professionally since 2010, completely inhabits the role of “Bayard Rustin.” With his cool, worldly outlook on life, he is a good foil for Cooke’s tightly wound unworldliness. Kudos to both actors and especially to Director Todd Fuller for putting these two men together on stage and making it work so well.

Xavier Harris, who has only been acting professionally since 2010, completely inhabits the role of ‘Bayard Rustin.’

It might help to read here, first, from Todd Fuller’s “Director’s Notes” before you go. Fuller writes: “It’s a terrible thing to hate who you are. When I first read this play, Walter’s guilt and self-hatred struck a chord with me. I couldn’t be happier to be presenting his story during Pride month. I hope Steven’s words reach someone who desperately needs them. We have a long way to go, but Art will help take us there.”

There are plays about homophobia and there are plays about racism. Canadian playwright Steven Elliott Jackson is adept at drawing parallels. One favorite moment comes when the two men share stories of their first arrests for engaging in homosexual acts. Jenkins, who is white, ruefully recalls being in jail “for hours!” Rustin, who is black, was in jail for two months. Jenkins is proud of his boss, Lyndon B. Johnson, for signing the Voting Rights Act. Rustin condemns LBJ for being a political animal who signed something that should have been law “ten Presidents before.” Jenkins is consumed by self-reproach. But not Rustin. He directs his anger in a healthier direction. Even though the play is set five years before the Stonewall Riots, Rustin embraces a modern post-Stonewall belief that these two men in the motel room are right and society is wrong.

The Set, Sound, and Lighting by Chris Cavanagh are effective, including the clever SFX of water running in a sink and a salute to R. Grace Gerchman, Production Stage Manager for good timing.

There are plays about homophobia and there are plays about racism. Canadian playwright Steven Elliott Jackson is adept at drawing parallels.

James Cichocki’s Costume Design is satisfying. When we first see these two power players they are wearing suits that fit, as would befit successful movers and shakers in Washington, and that’s not usually the case on Buffalo stages. (Far too often cuffs drag, suitcoats sag, and creases are anything but sharp.) And then, for the brief final scene after 20 years have passed, in a matter of seconds both men returned to the stage wearing the slacks and sweaters of successful men with nothing left to prove, now wearing glasses and with a touch of gray.

Personal sartorial memory: I remember back in the late 1960s in college I would visit my friend Steve and his wife up in Westchester County and then in the morning take the train back down along the Hudson into Manhattan. If I had an early class and took an early train, it was all hourly employees – janitors, clerks, and others wearing uniforms. Around 8 a.m. my fellow passengers wore Armani suits, Robert Talbott ties and butter-soft shoes as they carried their sleek briefcases on the way up the corporate ladder. And if I took a later train, say around 10 a.m. those guys wore relaxed Italian slacks, cardigan sweaters, no ties, no briefcases, just a copy of the Times or WSJ folded up. They had reached the point in their career where they’d check in at the office, then go to a power lunch, maybe make a few phone calls, and get back on the train long before rush hour. I knew what success looked like. And so, obviously, does Costume Designer Cichocki.

A final thought: If you like theater that engages you, then you’ll like this play.

Lead image courtesy Todd Fuller | L-R Robert Cooke, Steven Elliott Jackson, Xavier Harris 

UP NEXT: The New Phoenix Theatre has announced it’s 2019-2020 Season, with IZZY, A Musical Revue; COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN; KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN; and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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