Trenton’s Passage Theater is ending its 2010-’11 season on a high with Mat Smart’s play “Samuel J. and K.” about two young African-American men raised as brothers but who are not blood brothers. Although the two are African-American, the play is not as much about race as it is more precisely about the different aspects of their difficult, competitive, and testy relationship over a period of seven years. The protagonists are Samuel K., an adopted son brought over from Africa when he was three, and Samuel J., who is eight years older and whose mother has raised them both without the support of a father who had long ago abandoned the family.
The excellence of Smart’s emotionally honest and dramatically compacted script is evident from its opening moments in an outdoor neighborhood basketball court where Samuel J. (Paul Notice) and Samuel K. (J. Mallory-McCree) are having a fraternal face-off in a one-on-one game of “Make it. Take it.” It’s graduation day from college for K., but that doesn’t stop the 30-year-old J., a college drop-out in a low-paying job, from playing a little rough with the 22-year-old K. I’m not about to give away how they got their names, as that comes out amusingly soon enough.
There is a lot of dribbling going on, but more to point is the graduation gift that J. has for K. — a pair of tickets to Cameroon. Though K. has never expressed any desire to return to Cameroon and either seek out his birth parents or re-connect with the land of his birth, it is pretty apparent that J.’s stagnant relationship with his girlfriend (unseen) and his unfulfilled life in Naperville may be behind an almost subconscious need for him to take this trip with the otherwise indifferent and even resistant K. His only memory of Cameroon as a child of three is limited to the sound of rain on a tin roof. A scholar graduating with honors and secured of a fine life and career in America, K. doesn’t grasp the urgency of his brother’s generosity.
The complexity of their relationship is acutely dramatized during their African adventure. This unsettling sojourn allows for some revelatory and disturbing disclosures, one, in particular regarding K.’s relationship with the woman that his brother is presumably going to marry. A rift between the two is as inevitable as is the direction of their lives. The play’s action occurs before and after a seven-year span, the former serving as the seeds for the emotional growth and visceral changes that we see in them later.
What most impressed me is how trenchantly the play deals with the difficulty that brothers have in communicating their feelings, the emotional pain caused by a parent who favors one child over the other, and the obligation of children to care for an elderly parent who needs special care. These as well as racial/cultural issues are addressed quite often humorously and without any melodramatic enhancement. Best of all, Smart has also accomplished what many playwrights fail to do: make off-stage characters as vital and alive as the ones we see on stage.
This is a very moving and perceptive play, one that excels in part because of the care that has gone into its production. Add to this the excellence of the acting by Paul Notice as Samuel J. and by J. Mallory-McCree as Samuel K., also the energizing direction by Jade King Carroll, and the strikingly clever and adaptable set by Matthew Campbell that allows for some impressive transitions from the U.S. to locations in Africa.
As is true of every live performance of a play, our satisfaction comes when we believe what we are seeing as we are seeing it. Notice, who is currently finishing his MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU, is incredibly moving as J., who goes to incredible lengths to nurture and sustain his tenuous bond with K. The performance by Mallory-McCree, a graduate of Rutgers University BFA Theater Conservatory and a member of the Negro Ensemble Company, is also memorable as K., who matures viscerally and emotionally before our eyes as he begins to understand himself as well as he begins to appreciate and understand his brother’s need to find a place for himself in the world. While Samuel J. and K. was recently produced at Steppenwolf for Young Adults in Chicago, it would be nice to see it done in New York.
“Samuel J. and K,” through Sunday, May 22, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 Front Street, Trenton. $20 to $30), 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org