BWW Review: KINGS OF AMERICA Premieres at Sacramento Theatre Company
Sacramento Theatre Company is a regional treasure, unique in the fact that they support and develop local talent. Each season they produce an original work by an area artist. Their 2017-18 season theme of Fate, Fantasy and Forgiveness currently features a play by Sacramento native Sean Patrick Nill entitled Kings of America.
A self-described "history nerd," Nill was fascinated with American presidents and looked to them as heroes. Eventually he realized that much of what is taught in our history books is colored by the way Americans want to remember history, not by what actually happened. Kings of America was born in an effort to better understand the American psyche and how we might progress as a country through honest dialogue, listening, and empathizing.
Kings of America is about an African American teenager, Noah Garrison, who has lost his father, with whom he shared a love of American history. It opens with Noah (J'cyn Crawley) at his therapist's office (Jordan Stidham), where he reluctantly agrees to describe the dreams that have been plaguing him. In his first dream, Noah tells of meeting Teddy (John Lamb) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Will Springhorn, Jr.), who are discussing the results of the 2008 presidential election. Noah is thrilled and surprised that the United States has finally elected an African American president. The presidents acknowledge Noah's excitement by telling him, "Change is finally coming." Noah, ever the pragmatist, responds with, "You can't change if you don't remember. Americans don't remember anything", thus setting the tone for the rest of the play. The presidents further put the nail in the American political coffin by telling Noah, "We don't care what you have to say, we care how you vote," and, my personal favorite, "We yell preposterous things!"
In Noah's next dream sequence, he encounters Jimmy Carter (Springhorn) and John F. Kennedy (Stidham). Kennedy reinforces to Noah that the presidency is as much acting as anything else, while Carter reveals that a president can be remembered only as being boring, despite numerous accomplishments that helped the American people. Following these are Abraham Lincoln (Springhorn) and Andrew Jackson (Lamb). Lincoln comes across as a simpleton spouting quotes until he utters, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt," no question in response to Jackson's racist and volatile rants, which make us wonder how Jackson was chosen to represent the United States on currency.
Meanwhile, Noah still refuses to speak to his mother and continues to see his therapist, all while struggling to stay awake in every scene. After meeting Bill Clinton (Stidham) and George Washington (Springhorn), who primarily make fun of Washington's plagiarized Rules of Civility, Noah encounters Woodrow Wilson (Lamb) and Thomas Jefferson (Stidham), then Richard Nixon (Springhorn) and George W. Bush (Lamb). It is then that we learn that Noah's father, Arthur Garrison, has died in the war against terror, the victim of a suicide bomb. Here is when the entirety of Noah's anguish erupts. Most of it is directed at Bush, who he perceives as the catalyst in his father's death and, in his mind, desertion of the family. His fears about not remembering his father come to a head and he is finally able to admit his anger towards his mother, as well. He believes that she has betrayed his father by not unleashing her anger on President Bush when he called to offer his condolences. In a timely coincidence and in fictional Bush's defense, he did remember Arthur Garrison's name and expresses his pain at the soldiers that have been lost.
After a final visit with his therapist, Noah is ultimately ready to open his communication with his mother in order to come to terms with his new reality and journey on the path to healing.
J'cyn Crawley makes his professional debut as a believably angry Noah Garrison. He imbues the role with the attitude that is unique to the teenager and still comes across as vulnerable.
John Lamb brings a wealth of experience to the show and is always a pleasure to watch. His George W. Bush is impeccable, complete with Texas accent, facial tics and mannerisms.
Will Springhorn, Jr. may have been my favorite actor to watch. He inhabited each of his characters thoroughly and commanded the stage with his presence. As Nixon, he conveyed the paradox that is the office of the American president. Expected to hold true to ethics and yet please every American citizen, then vilified if not performing at a superhuman level. It is an impossible standard for anyone to match.
Providing the comic relief was Jordan Stidham. Casting him as Bill Clinton was genius. If you closed your eyes, you would think that you were listening to Bill the jokester and philanderer, not Bill the president.
Sean Patrick Nill has successfully combined entertainment, social commentary, and education. Kings of America is a treasure for children and adults alike. It showcases how, in our imperfections, we overlook injustices that should be brought to the forefront. Leaders should be held accountable for their actions and we, as citizens, need to be held accountable for our inaction and passivity. Now, more than ever, the youth of America need to be reminded of this. I hope that we can look forward to more insight from Nill in the future at the Sacramento Theatre Company.
Kings of America runs from November 1st-December 10th at the Sacramento Theatre Company. Tickets are available at the box office at 1419 H Street in Sacramento, by visiting Sactheatre.org, or by calling (916) 443-6722.
Photo Credit: Charr Crail Photography