Chicago’s Broken Nose Theater is debuting the world premiere of Kingdom, a play about a Southern, African American, entirely LGBTQ-identifying family living in Orlando at the beginning of the legalization of same-sex marriage. The play looks at ideas or organizations that Americans idolize (Disney, the NFL, happy marriage, living out and proud as a queer person) and the systemic issues and personal struggles that get in the way of happily-ever-afters.
I interviewed playwright Michael Allen Harris and director Kanomé Jones about their must-see production.
JB: Kanomé, what appealed to you about the script?
KJ: I was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, but I also spent 10 years in Little Rock, Arkansas, and any play right now that’s in the canon that’s written about the South is usually about a white southern plantation or the feel-good southern belle stories. I love Tennessee Williams, and those plays are beautiful, but I read this script and was like, ‘Oh, that sounds like my family.’ … I could place each and every one of these characters as a member of my family: aunties and uncles and cousins.
I don’t think we see enough stories about black people in the South that have to do with them just living life as a family. We need to get out of this stigma: any story about black Americans, they’re trying to overcome or achieve something. No, we actually have the same level of problems. We actually love in similar ways. And in this script — thank you, Michael, for writing the script — we have this wonderfully complex family drama that also happens to be about black people and LGBTQ community, and people can see like, ‘Oh, wow! This is actually not so different from my experience.’
MAH: I knew that when writing this play that it was going to be about queer African Americans as a family navigating their lives and their circumstances. And I didn’t want it to be a play about destitution or the woes that come with being a queer black person in the South. I didn’t want it to be about that. I just wanted it to be about a family going through these particular struggles that are in line with their truths.
There’s a tension between Disney being this predominantly white, heteronormative world of fantasy and, well, a fantasy many of us grew up enjoying.
MAH: I love the Disney animated films. Yes, they are heteronormative, and yes they are white, but they’re beautiful stories and wonderfully constructed. That being said, I was able to enjoy them, but I connected to them only so far. I didn’t grow up with Tiana — the closest connection to a person of color I had was Aladdin.
What I wanted for these characters is to connect to what Disney does show: that anyone can be a hero and that there’s someone special out there for everyone. You see that, and you want that, but it’s so difficult because you don’t see yourself in it.
KJ: I feel similarly. Yes, I watched Disney growing up. I watched a lot of cartoons. Especially for black people, we had to spend a lot of time watching cartoons and things in order to find places to get identity and connection from, because most mainstream television did not include our stories. I can talk all day about, like, all of the shows that I watch, but if it wasn’t ‘Family Matters’ or ‘The Cosby Show,’ then they were not shows with which I could connect. But cartoons—this idea of an imagined world—for some reason, even though some of those characters didn’t look like me, I could still connect to the larger ideas of love and friendship.
One of the things that I do love about these characters and their connection to Disney is that idea. Arthur specifically talks about, ‘I walk into the kingdom, and I am immediately accepted and welcomed, and I don’t feel questioned about who I am. I don’t feel the need to defend my identity.’ And I think that one of the things that these Disney stories have allowed is the opportunity for black people and for queer people to do is to put ourselves in those worlds where it’s like, ‘Well, yes, even if we have to defend our identity, we can find love. There is a happy ending with all of these people who are outsiders, because Disney stories are a lot about people who are outside the norm and who are overcoming. And I think that is definitely a story that black queer people can identify with. And I feel like that’s why the characters love it so much.
We need to get out of this stigma: any story about black Americans, they’re trying to overcome or achieve something. No, we actually have the same level of problems. We actually love in similar ways.
The play talks about the shame of growing up as a gay black man. Why was this so important to talk about?
MAH: As a gay black man, it wasn’t something that I knew that I was particularly dealing with until I literally sat down and read the Velvet Rage, and I was like, ‘Oh! that makes sense why I did that in my early 20s. And that makes sense of why I acted this way in my past relationships.’ There is a misconception that once you come out of the closet, everything is fine and hunky dory and the whole world will love you. And that’s false. I came out when I was 18, but I had 18 years of being in the closet, and I connect it to what it could be like to be incarcerated. You don’t just come into the ‘free world’ and operate as you would in the free world. No, you still have been conditioned to behave in a certain way. So shame affects how we perceive ourselves, how we perceive relationships. It can be very damaging, and I don’t think we in the queer community do the best job of dealing with shame or, as I like to say, the post-traumatic stress that comes with shame.
KJ: And culturally for black families, when things go wrong or if there’s something that everyone knows is a problem, no one talks about it in a way that’s useful and productive. I think culturally we’re taught to keep all that in and manage your own shame. You speaking about the things that you’re struggling with is sometimes perceived as a form of weakness. You’re not strong enough to deal with it? Well, the world is not going to give you any handouts or any means to support what you’re dealing with, so you need to figure it out on your own.
MAH: Especially for the black community, we’ve had such a history with not talking about our issues because, historically, silence is how we survived. Just getting through and taking the punches along the way is how we survived, and I think that’s transferred over to how we deal with our own personal issues all these years later. And also the idea of respectability, especially when it comes to masculinity. You cannot go outside these lines of what that is because you will be bringing shame onto yourself, onto the family and so forth.
It was really beautiful to watch two generations of an LGBT family, and I don’t see that very often. I’m wondering, Michael, why you chose that particular setup for your characters?
MAH: People of a certain age are subtracted when we talk about queerness. And also, when you think about queer stories, things like the ‘Normal Heart’ or ‘AIDS in America’ come to mind, and those men of that time period have age, but they’re still mostly white men when we think about the canon. Where are the men of color? They were affected during that time period as well. So it was really important for me to cast a light on these men’s stories because, frankly, they’re getting up there in age, and I didn’t want for them to leave this world without some acknowledgement of their existence.
And, also, we’ve come such a long way between the two generations. I think it was important to look at just how far we’ve come and also how much farther we have to go and acknowledge those generational differences. I am able to live my life in a way that men Arthur and Henry’s age could not. There’s certain acknowledgements to how we can live life that the two groups don’t always connect on. And that’s OK, but I did want to address what those differences were.
People of a certain age are subtracted when we talk about queerness. And also, when we think about queer stories … they’re still mostly white men when we think about the canon. Where are the men of color?
One of my favorite lines from the play was, “We’re all under the same umbrella, but we’re not all in the same storm.” You might think you understand what someone else is going through, but you can’t assume that your own lens is adequate to see someone else’s world.
KJ: When I hear that line, the first thing that comes to mind is the conversation surrounding women, in particular. What does it mean to be female identified? Yes, we all exist in that same sphere, but, as a black woman and as a queer woman, I deal with something really specific. If you don’t acknowledge all three of those different spheres, then we can’t have a real conversation.
MAH: All of the characters are cis-gendered, but Phaedra is the only one who is a woman. They’re all gay, but she is a gay black woman. There are struggles that Phaedra goes through as a gay black woman that the rest of the characters will not understand. They might share some rain, but the storm is different.
There are struggles that Phaedra goes through as a gay black woman that the rest of the characters will not understand. They might share some rain, but the storm is different.
What are your thoughts on having a play about these southern characters specifically being shown in Chicago?
KJ: I think this story for Chicago again highlights people living their lives. There are just as important stories on the South Side of this city that feature black people, and we don’t see those stories because of the stigma surrounding that. So the more stories we can get out there that help to erase people’s preconceived notions about what it means to live in any kind “south,” because it’s so weird — I think just the word south — people are automatically like, ‘Poor class neighborhood. Oh, that’s the ghetto.’
MAH: They automatically see a Confederate flag.
KJ: Exactly. And it’s like, no, that’s not how it is everywhere. That also doesn’t automatically mean there’s drugs and prostitution. That is what television and movies have done to you when you see brown people, in general, in a story, but that is not the full spectrum of what it means to be a person of color. This story I think helps to rectify that image. Guess what? Brown people can also be in love, and it’s also messy and complicated but in a different way because of the fact that we have our own experiences.
So I think, for Chicago, this story is important. This year has been amazing in terms of the stories featuring specifically black people, and black queer men and women, and there’s just something bubbling right now in Chicago. Yes, let’s start exploring the spectrum of what it means to be black queer person in the world.
MAH: There’s this misconception that the North means freedom. Or that urban cities mean freedom for marginalized groups, specifically black queer people. Even though some parts of Chicago can be better than a lot of the parts of the South, two people of the same sex can’t hold each other’s hands in every part of the city. I think what this play will hopefully add is showing these queer people, who look just like them, living openly in an area that a lot of people assumed they couldn’t do. Hopefully that will help them be able to better navigate their own lives that they are living in areas where being open and queer is restricted.
Why is a play such a great medium for these stories?
KJ: The thing about theater is that there’s less of a separation between the story and the audience. Like you have no choice but to experience it. Whereas I think, film and television, depending on the power of the story, you can distance yourself because those are people up there on a screen, and the best stories transcend that. Theater is a space with these people that can, by the way, see you and hear you. I think with a story like this that, at the heart of it, is this wonderful family drama, it’s important for people to come and immediately be able to place themselves in the lives of these characters. And ride the wave of emotions that the characters are going through. It does get a little uncomfortable, but then it’s also really funny. I’m glad that it’s a play because you have no choice but to sit and go through your own emotions and feel it, and then you get to leave the darkness and hopefully conversation continues after that.
“Kingdom” is running through April 7 at The Den Theater, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets for all Broken Nose Theatre productions are available on a “pay-what-you-can” basis, allowing patrons to set their own price. Click here for tickets to Kingdom.