Directed by Ron OJ Parson
Produced by Steppenwolf for Young Adults
At the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Upstairs stage
Two brothers, two colors, and the ocean that divides them.
Steppenwolf for Young Adults (SYA) is an outstanding concept: every year, nearly 15,000 students, faculty, and staff from the Chicago community see the plays they put on, explicitly designed for that audience. And both the writer and director of this play assert that they were profoundly affected by experiencing theater at a young age, only attesting once again how important arts are in our school systems.
But is Samuel J. and K. – a play about two brothers from Naperville, one of whom is an adopted African baby, and their travel to Cameroon to find themselves – appropriate for SYA, and, perhaps more important (because kids will rise to the needed maturity level, given the chance), a good play?
Well, it is not unequivocally appropriate: there is some harsh language, and the two characters do get drunk. That said, kids know all the dirty words by the time they enter high school now (even if they don’t know the exact etymology yet), and the drinking scene does not glorify alcohol – nor does it moralize about it. The two characters simply get drunk their last night in Cameroon, which is something many if not most twenty-somethings would do.
Does it have some moral guidance, though? Yes, both implicitly (at the beginning of the play, the black brother, Samuel K. (Samuel G. Robinson, Jr)., is graduating from college, something Samuel J. (Cliff Chamberlain) never managed to do – “blacks can go to college, too!”) and explicitly (when Samuel J. knocks up a Cameroonian girl, he decides to stay and be a father to the children, rather than force them to grow up fatherless, as he did). But that doesn’t mean the play handles the issues with grace. Mostly, it’s overbearing, patronizing, and ham-handed. Mat Smart seems more gleeful to take his gimmick of adopted brothers to its logical extreme than to tell a believable story: the “J.” stands for Jackson and the “K.” for Kennedy – the white guy’s name is the same as a black celebrity and the black guy’s name comes from a white, Catholic president! While Samuel J. is working in Cameroon, he picks cotton! Which is something Samuel K. finds infinite amusement in – see, because the white kid is picking cotton in Africa, and black slaves did that in America! Isn’t that hilarious?
That doesn’t mean the piece has no redeeming qualities: there are instances of good writing, poignant moments, the play wants so much to be free-thinking and accepting; but the story is simply too contrived to be particularly good. And what’s more, the play talks down to the audience: it spells out metaphors over-explicitly, it doesn’t trust high schoolers to be clever enough to understand what’s going on, it uses simplistic language (and I’m not talking about the occasional “fuck” – plenty of playwrights use coarse language in brilliant plays, and the inclusion thereof does not automatically qualify or disqualify a piece of being appropriate – or not). When kids are presented with challenging material, they will rise to it; when they are presented with facile, patronizing material, they will become insulted and lose interest. I believe the latter will be the result of this piece.
Also, I understand that it’s a Chicago play, and so they want to include contemporary Chicago music; the Kanye West was fine. But no Common? Really? I think of him as much more attached to the urban culture of Chicago than Kanye. And when they overdubbed African drums over the Kanye track, they were very slightly behind the rhythm.
Ultimately, I think there are plenty of other sources out there that would ignite deeper conversation amongst youth than Samuel J. and K. could. Which is so unfortunate: it is arguably more important for theater geared towards kids to be really excellent than the next Mamet or Stoppard play – it is, after all, what might attract the next Beckett, Goold, or McKellen to the stage. And I am sad to say that this SYA piece is very unlikely to do that.
Reviewed on: 2.26.11
For full show information, check out the Samuel J. and K. page at Theatre In Chicago.
At Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halstead St; call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org; tickets $20, $15 for students; Saturday & Sunday at 11am; running time 140 minutes with one intermission; through March 13.