“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
– Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, “A Cult of Ignorance” (24 January 1980)
If there’s one thing I can say about Sarah Burgess’ Kings, the new political (satire?) playing at Shotgun, it’s that the show is optimistic. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it offensively optimistic, knowing full well that such a term treads the oxymoronic.
I question whether the show could be considered a satire because the text itself doesn’t seem all that sure: its characters are too broadly drawn to be real people, yet Burgess is too obsessed with the minutiae of everyone’s position – something that must have taken extensive research – to want them to appear anything other than real people. Take, for instance, newly-elected Congresswoman Sydney Millsap (Sam Jackson). She isn’t really a person so much as the playwright trying to recreate her own version of Clair Huxtable. Sydney is perfect in such a way that you’d think she’d been created in a lab: a well-spoken Black women with nary a flaw on her record, widowed when her military husband died in the Middle East, now a single mother taking on the White establishment. I’m a Black man and unabashed Progressive, yet if you told me a candidate like Millsap existed, I’d say you were described the pre-selected traits of some political RPG.
I’m guessing Burgess was going for a Michelle Obama vibe, but that doesn’t work for a character meant to represent the more bold generation of Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the latter of whose shadow looming large on both the text and the production staged by Shotgun.
But I digress, on to the story proper. The show opens in the lobby of a posh hotel where several politicians (implied to be Dems, but never said so by name) are holding a fundraising gala. Medical lobbyist Kate (Elissa Beth Stebbins) happens upon financial lobbyist Lauren (Sarah Mitchell). The two have been lobbyists for so long that many of the moral gray areas of their work no longer raise eyebrows for them (eg., Lauren’s works for a private financial firm, but her wife – yes, wife – is the head of the Securities Exchange Commission). One can imagine their surprise when confronted with the unflappable Congresswoman from Texas, the first woman and person-of-color to win her district.
The lobbyists have traditionally had far more luck with old-school Senator John McDowell (Don Wood), also from the Lone Star state. Granted, the senator isn’t fond of how Kate’s reps tend to “ignore” him unless absolutely necessary. This is the first of many slights that leads Kate and Millsap to joining forces, something that will have severe repercussions for all involved.
Y’know why it’s so hard to write about politics in drama? Because drama, by its very nature, demands heightened emotions and over-simplified streamlined descriptions to hold an audience’s attention. This leads to the trap of reducing everyone to walking mouthpieces for their platforms rather than actual human beings. Mind you, it’s not impossible to pull this trick off: last year’s Aurora world premiere of Jon Spector’s Eureka Day is exemplary of how to take a hot-button issue (vaccinations) and present proven facts (vaccinations are both safe and necessary) without reducing the other side to foaming mouths.
Burgess at least makes attempts create shades of gray: a conversation between Kate and Sydney about possible seeing a podiatrist before an opioid prescription brings Sydney the closest she ever comes to being wrong, and the talk of Lauren’s wife & McDowell’s son (reportedly a horrible poet) do well to color in these characters. But they never evolve into anything more than a series of neuroses and gestures. McDowell never becomes anything more than an old White politician insisting that his views aren’t the result of institutional racism, misogyny, and White privilege.
Director Joanie McBrien tends to keep the characters tethered to one spot each scene, making them seem like mannequins or animatronics from Disney’s Hall of Presidents. I’ve seen Sam Jackson perform enough to know what she can with even the simplest of characters, but her direction in Kings seems to be “just stand there with your hands clasped together”. There’s very little variation in her voice, save for a crucial “low point” scene in the latter-half. So too does the ever-reliable Elissa Beth Stebbins seem overly restrained in her performance. Sarah Mitchell and Don Wood also seem held back, but the former is at least successful in conveying a genuine sense of optimism early on and betrayal later on. Like the characters they play, the actors are only able to move so far out of their comfort zones, if at all.
But, in typical Shotgun fashion, the tech side is something to behold. Looking at my notes, I see that Angrette McClosky’s set reminded me of the interiors of Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back, so much so that I expected someone to run past holding an ice cream maker. On reflection, I’m guessing that that the design of the walls was meant to represent the columns of old DC buildings, but that’s just my guess. The set works well as a “blank canvas” to host the shifting action. This is helped by the use of Erin Gilley’s subtle-but-effective projections, Chris Lundahl’s lights, and James Ard’s sounds. Our characters effortlessly transport from DC to a Florida poolside to a Chili’s in Texas with ease, thanks to the fine tech work.
Yes, our characters visit Chili’s, which is identified by name. This required prop designer Devon LaBelle to provide the production with what I can only describe as “big-ass margarita glasses”. Because Texas. I’d say it’s the little things that make all the difference, but these particular props were anything but. Thankfully, LaBelle showed an equal amount of detail with the dated “office” phones used for the hotel scene.
Yet I must give a special shout-out to thread mistress Miyuki Bierlein for ensembles she put together here. Though I was unimpressed by the characterizations as written and directed, I found myself constantly noting things like “Syd’s wrap” in the early scene, the turquoise dress for her first meeting with the senator, and the maroon dress of her first campaign speech. Before long, I began writing down everyone’s scene entrances based on their eye-catching wardrobe: from “Kate’s polka dot shirt & black jacket w/ white cube pattern” to “Lauren’s primary blue blouse” next to “Kate’s LBD”. Miyuki’s work is subtle without vanishing into the background, yet pleasantly colorful without pulling attention. Definitely a high point of the show.
There’s a point late in Kings when two characters who have no business remaining cordial with one another are now not only friends, but discussing going into business with one another. It’s a conclusion arrived at inorganically and contradictory to everything we’ve seen thus far. That this is the penultimate scene perfectly illustrates the problem with Kings: it wants to move past the old way of doing business (in this case, the clichés of the genres), but it’s too beholden to that old way to ever have its “change” be anything more than lip service. Politics isn’t perfect, nor are the candidates, but this play uses the very sort of reductive logic that both plays and politics should avoid.
The tech work is excellent and the cast seem willing to put in the work, but a “meh” script and stifled direction prevent this show from achieving its true potential.
Kings is scheduled to run until the 16th of June at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA.
The show runs roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes, including a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.