It’s a well-known fact that siblings often do not live in harmony. Children born to the same parents have been known to disagree, to fight, be jealous, covet, harm one another, hurt their parents, move far distances, stay estranged.
In this case, there are two “brothers” – both named “Samuel” — one was born in Cameroon, Africa, of different parents and adopted at the age of 3 by an American family when their birth child already was eight years old. Eight years is nearly half a generation, a chasm between siblings. By the time the younger child reaches puberty, the other is nearly grown. When it appears to the older child that the younger is being favored, the perceived favoritism may be hugely divisive.
Everything about this event on Saturday night, May 7, was a surprise to me: the story of the play, the excellence of the performers, the creative and well-executed sets and lighting, the purpose of the Passage Theatre Company; the Mill Hill Playhouse building, the location of the theatre. I am annoyed that for years I have missed shows by this company, hidden in plain sight.
SAMUEL J. AND K., which premiered last summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival, is clever, compelling and poignant, supposedly designed for young adult audiences, but thought-provoking and entertaining for audiences of anyone over 15. Written to be played by a white older brother and African–born younger brother, Passage Theatre used two people of color. It didn’t matter; it’s not about race.
Gifted playwright Mat Smart is the author of twelve full-length plays and numerous other writings, and is co-founder of the Slant Theatre Project in NYC.
Next, the two fine actors: Paul Notice as Samuel J. and J. Mallory-McCree as Samuel K., had excellent chemistry together on stage. Both are Actors’ Equity members, both have theatre degrees and fine theatre credits. They deftly handled the improvisational nature of the one-on-one basketball and the reluctant genuine affection for one another.
Director Jade King Carroll got it just right! She used the space frugally and wisely; the staging, the character development, the timing – all were very, very good, not so surprising since she has a list of excellent directing credits.
While expecting to see phenomenal sets when I see Broadway shows, I often relax my expectations for off-Broadway, regional and community theatre. I was wowed, however, by the remarkable creativity of the set designed for a relatively small stage with almost no backstage or wings by professional designer and educator Matthew Campbell.
Campbell often designs for Passage Theatre while serving as Performing Arts Master in theatre and music programs at the Lawrenceville School where he is resident set designer.
Before Act Two began on opening night, three latecomers entered the theatre, two in full tribal garb. A visit The Lion King from actors? No, they were from Cameroon. He is President of Initiative Bamileke in Harlem, NY, the king of the tribe in Cameroon, Africa, where Mat Smart visited and set part of Act 2.
King Napoleon travels with his own throne which was carried in by theatre personnel during the intermission, after which he walked down the aisle with his staff to sit on his personal hand carved throne in the front row, a hand-carved walking staff held firmly in his right hand, while across the aisle sat his two friends: Jean-Pierre Billal Njankou and Ernestine Billal NJankou. The guests caused quite a stir in the audience. After the curtain call, much photo-taking ensued by members of the press, including this writer.
I highly recommend SAMUEL J. AND K., which plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM; Sundays at 3 PM through May 22 at The Mill Hill Playhouse located at 205 E. Front Street, Trenton, 08608. Entrance is from the first floor at the rear of the former church. There is an elevator for those who cannot climb stairs.
Their phone number is 609-392-0766. Tickets are $20 and $30 with discounts available for students, senior citizens and groups.
The regionally recognized 100 seat theatre is a not-for-profit company supported by the state and by numerous corporations and hundreds of donors and contributors. Their mission is to develop and produce boundary pushing and stylistically adventurous new works for the theatre that entertain and challenge a diverse audience.
SAMUEL J. AND K.
by Mat Smart
Directed by Jade King Carroll
May 5-22, 2011
Passage Theatre Company
Mill Hill Playhouse
205 E. Front Street
Trenton, NJ 08608