It takes a long time for Walter Jenkins to breathe.
He’s gone to use the public restroom in a Washington, D.C. park. It’s 1964, and when he’s not using these facilities, he works in the White House as a top aide to President Johnson. He is white.
When Bayard Rustin isn’t doing the same – just going about his personal necessities in a legal, public, bladder-sanctioned way – he works as a close adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He organized the March on Washington. He is black.
What happens when these two men do their involuntary business at the same time, in the same public restroom, one that’s often used by discreet men to engage in anonymous homosexual activity, well that’s their story.
“The Seat Next to the King,” now at the New Phoenix Theatre, picks up where these circumstances leave off. In four scenes and 75 gripping minutes, we dive right into the darkest corners of Walter’s baggage: the reasons he frequents this restroom, the nearby motel he goes to when things get there, the excuses he gives his wife the next day even after she’s stopped asking.
Robert Cooke feels all of Walter’s weight. He holds it in his shoulders, navigating the enclosed, messy facility like a fish in a cage, moving around to remember that he can but always reminded of the fences holding him in. Cooke is a pro at this nervous tension, punctuating all this stress with a nuanced grimace, smirk or hopeful smile. All of it looks reactionary – refreshing and heartbreaking.
Xavier Harris’s Bayard is the exact opposite: calm, cool, collected, and yet flirtatiously in charge. Harris hits these notes with ease, maintaining a levelness that feeds his character’s purpose perfectly. Bayard exists to instigate Walter’s self-reckoning, not the other way around. Make no mistake: This is a story about race told from the white man’s perspective, hinging partially on a white man being afraid of a black man. There’s substantial common ground between the two, but much more ado about their differences.
Harris and Cooke have distinct chemistry. They co-own this storytelling as a united front, despite playwright Steven Elliott Jackson’s clear bias. Cooke, who is known primarily for his musical theater work, is a revelation in this songless play. Even in an intimate space, which director Todd Fuller has surrounded with seats on all four sides (common in this space), Cooke knows when and how to perform-out and when to play inward. Here, his back-row projection skills come in handy.
Harris is less polished in this regard, his lines often swallowed up by backward glances and mumbled diction. Fuller’s blocking lets this much of Harris’ performance down, as if enunciation and stage presence were never addressed in rehearsal. His characterizations are confident and in good service to the text; it would just be nice to encounter him more.
Clearly, he and Cooke are connecting in fiery ways, physically and politically. The politics behind their characters’ professional personas and the very secret sexual identities they withhold from public life – or risk facing arrest, scandal, physical abuse or worse – inform every interaction between them. This is enough to keep the play’s shortcomings and the production’s minor technical concerns in perspective.
Their efforts paid off for me at the performance I attended when Cooke, after exiting his scene to the backstage space behind our seats, let out a deep private breath, the emotional residue from a breakdown his Walter has just experienced. At last: the exhale.
“The Seat Next to the King”
3.5 stars (out of four)
Through June 29 at the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park, Buffalo. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $30-$20 with pay-what-you-can Thursdays (box office, 853-1334, newphoenixtheatre.org).