I usually don’t make my reviews personal, but my experience while watching Primary Trust and the themes within this gorgeously crafted play are inexorably intertwined. With gentle brushstrokes, Eboni Booth introduces us to 38 year old Kenneth, one of the few Black people living in Cranberry, a suburb of Rochester, New York. His ethnicity is only a minor contributor to Kenneth’s isolation. Having lived an extremely restricted life since the death of his mother when he was only ten, Kenneth’s coping mechanisms are intricate and ritualized. But somehow his idiosyncrasy has left him uniquely suited to meeting people at their own level.
There is a deliberate “let’s pretend” quality to the entire production. From the opening moments, Kenneth speaks directly to us in his halting and self-reflecting style. Long thoughtful pauses rest between effervescent bursts of storytelling. All the activity comes with musical accompaniment composed by Luke Wygodny, punctuated by the ding of an “order up” bell. Marsha Ginsberg’s whimsical scenic design takes the phrase “small town” and makes it literal, including a miniature church, bank, and big box store alongside Wally’s, the tiki bar that serves as Kenneth’s sanctuary. Lighting by designer Isabella Byrd leaves long shadows on the ground well before winter sets in. Costume designer Qween Jean employs a more muted color palate than her signature style until an essential jacket makes its appearance at a pivotal moment. Two actors play multiple roles, sometimes barely turning around before switching. Yet the play is never anything less than genuine and heartfelt. The entire audience was sufficiently swept up to respond emotionally to every turn.
William Jackson Harper is utterly perfect as Kenneth, balancing warmth, vulnerability, fear and heart. It’s Harper’s first stage appearance since 2017 and it was my first live theater attendance since March of 2020. Previously, theater played a major role in my life. Many of my friends come from that world and it was often the way I entertained others. Vacations have been planned around seeing a specific work or actor. The temporary loss of that pursuit was profound. But Primary Trust is all about bringing people in. At its core is the celebration of coming out of seclusion. To have Kenneth welcome me as a member of the audience into his life could not have been more impactful. And though I don’t have much more in common with the character, I do share his deep belief in the power of one good friend.
Director Knud Adams, who often works with new material, delicately mines Booth’s script, uncovering the layers of joy, sorrow and hope. Providing support and stability for Kenneth is his best friend Bert, played with sweet good nature by Eric Berryman. Jay O. Sanders seems to be having the time of his life portraying (among other characters) Kenneth’s two very different bosses. The first — the owner of a bookstore— has the difficult task of laying Kenneth off after twenty years of a comfortable relationship. The loss of his job shatters the comfortable if confining structure of Kenneth’s life, and the chink of light shining through the holes is both frightening and filled with possibility. Helping Kenneth step through the gap is April Matthis’s Corinna, the only one of a multitude of Wally Waiters who wants to see Kenneth as more than an eccentric customer. Completing the ensemble is a Musician played by understudy Paul Lincoln in the performance I attended. So essential is he in setting the beat and tone, that Mr. Lincoln received his own loud round of applause.
Roundabout has obviously worked to make this production inclusive. The company offers clear and sensible guidelines to audience members and the staff makes themselves very available to help. To get you in the mood for what is to come, the lobby has been decorated to resemble a tiki bar, complete with projected fish tank and artificial grass. The ticket confirmation warns audience members not to arrive late. I can only reemphasize their strong recommendation. Missing any of the first few minutes of the show will leave you with quite the wrong impression of what is transpiring.
Primary Trust is a work of true beauty. It was nurtured at the 2021 Ojai Playwrights Conference and is a recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. Running time is an absorbing 95 minutes with a realistic denouement. It is playing at the Laura Pels Theater in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street) through Sunday, July 2. (Note that Harper is out the weekend of June 9.) Tickets start at $56. $4.95 COVID cancelation insurance is available. Visit www.roundabouttheatre.org for additional information including special performances.
A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored – Live Stream
January 6th will never again be just a date, but rather an historic occurrence. Some consider what happened in 2021 to be the most serious attack against democracy. Others saw brave patriots who took action when they felt those same institutions had betrayed them and their leader. A third group finds the entire episode to be just so much more political blah-blah-blah that has nothing to do with them. All of these viewpoints are presented by the unreliable narrator and sole character in Roland Tec’s A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored, a live Zoom-based theatrical event.
A ticket to this happening comes with precise instructions. We have volunteered for a citizen panel. Check-in is at 7:45 PM and while the piece will conclude by 9:00PM we are requested to stay for “processing”. In order to participate fully, we will keep our cameras and microphones on and wear headphones to eliminate extraneous noise. (I further recommend using the Full Screen mode and Do Not Disturb to block out any notifications.) After hearing his story, our judgement of “the subject” will be legally binding.
These directions set the expectation for a serious and intense engagement with the solitary character, Benj. Eery music and distant voices that we hear upon entry only heighten the mood. As portrayed by writer Tec, Benj is an attempt to create an Everyman in what is becoming the everyday experience of many. Shot at a slight diagonal, this man clearly needs to clean house in all the meanings of that phrase. His headphones are askew and there’s a ladder and a towel behind him hinting at a mess beyond. COVID has kept him home alone more than at any time in his life. Most of his news is delivered through social media. New connections are only made online, where it is often hard to tell who is genuine and who is a bot. The valley has never been more uncanny than in Benj’s landscape.
As directed by Leigh Strimbeck, Benj speaks in a manner that alternates between rushed and halting. He shares his circumstances just before and shortly after the actions that took place on January 6th, with asides that give insight into his personal life. How deeply you are touched will depend on how well you are managing your own feelings.
The distractions are many. Chat has been left open, which allows for some important intervention but also unnecessary prattle. One of the disadvantages of conversations over Zoom is that the highlighted speaker is the loudest instead of the most important. With over 30 microphones open, those featured including a man with a persistent cough, a woman making clattering noises, and several very personal laughs. Perhaps this is meant as a metaphor for how easily our attention is diverted from discomfort. How deeply can we ever react to something on a screen? But there is no question that the technical set-up made it difficult to remain fully absorbed in what we had been told was a civic duty.
The section that leaves a lasting impression is the post show discussion, which on the night I attended was led by retired psychologist Henry “Hank” Greenspan, a playwright/historian whose work focuses on survivors of genocide. Our audience was less invested in whether Benj should suffer any consequence than in finding productive outlets for their own grief and discouragement. Reactions were only partially to the play and the rest to very real life. One woman pointed out that her feelings are not nagging at all, but in her face screaming 24/7.
That a short work like A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored could bring forth that level of emotion at this time of perpetual overwhelm is noteworthy. And while there are problems with Zoom, it does allow for sharing of the work across the country. There is one more scheduled opportunity to be a witness on Wednesday, September 7, at 8PM. Tickets are $22.50 and can be purchases on Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/302460416247.