N ow that I've seen my first Michael Allen Harris play, I'm adding him to the short list of Chicago playwrights who understand the difference between drama and diorama. While so many of his contemporaries seem content to schematize Big Ideas by populating narrow, transparent stage worlds with one-dimensional characters, Harris trades in compelling, aggravating ambiguity. Like the prodigious Ike Holter, Harris takes messy human impulses and makes them poignantly messier, in the process illuminating the societal forces that can turn human shortcomings into iconic tragedies.
Kingdom , given an impassioned premiere in director Kanome Jones's insightful staging for Broken Nose Theatre, reveals Harris on the brink of greatness. He's created a familiar yet exceptional family: hobbled patriarch Arthur, his terminally ill long-term partner Henry, his self-destructive son Alexander, and his headstrong niece Phaedra, all African-American, all gay. Their bonds have been nearly rent asunder by the insidious pressures of racism and homophobia, not to mention the workaday traumas of family life. Set in 2015, just after Obergefell v. Hodges granted same-sex couples the right to marry, Kingdom explores three volatile relationships: Arthur and Henry, at loggerheads over legalizing their 40-year partnership; Alexander and Malik, college lovers who split after nine years so closeted Malik could achieve his dream of playing for the NFL; and, less centrally, Phaedra and Rosalija, faltering under the menacing presence of Rosalija's homophobic ex-boyfriend.
Like Lorraine Hansberry, Harris has a gift for creating high-stakes crises that arise naturally from his characters' social predicaments. To start the play, for example, he maroons everyone in a cramped, rundown family home, where tempers flare and old wounds fester. But unlike the thousand or so playwrights who've used a similar setup to fantasize about working-class travails, Harris grounds the play in a particular, intractable reality: they're all here because Alexander pulled his fathers out of assisted living after they suffered insistent racist and homophobic mistreatment. Now everybody's stuck without adequate resources, perspective, or patience.
And so it goes for two pressure-cooked hours, as monumental historical forces conspire to trigger each character's innate weakness-Arthur's bullheadedness, Henry's dissimulation, Alexander's self-loathing, Phaedra's inflexibility, Malik's self-absorption-making every bad thing, and a few good ones, a whole lot worse. Best of all, Harris shows engrossing empathy for all his characters. This is the rare gay play that refuses to judge even the unrepentantly closeted character.
Harris still has work to do. His first scene dawdles. Henry's pivotal act-two confession is unearned. The too-easy ending is pure wish fulfillment. But as a dramatist, he's got the goods, as the affecting, nuanced performances in this world premiere make abundantly clear. v