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‘… What the End Will Be’ Review: Learning to Let Go

‘… What the End Will Be’ Review: Learning to Let Go

Kinship with our elders is a privilege not often afforded to queer people. How many sons have come out to gay fathers and grandfathers? Imagining the possibility of these generational bonds feels like a reparative gesture in “…What the End Will Be,” an astute and poignant reflection on sexuality, mortality and Black masculinity by the playwright Mansa Ra, which opened on Thursday night at the Laura Pels Theater.

Did I mention it’s also a comedy?

The play is set in a stylish living room in a posh Atlanta suburb, where Maxwell (Emerson Brooks) has taken in his ailing father Bartholomew (Keith Randolph Smith). Because Bartholomew has Stage 4 bone cancer, there’s only one way this can go, and he is already browsing for caskets online. But Maxwell, a careerist whose ambitions are a fortress against reality, is in deep denial. (“No dying,” he says to his father, laying the ground rules for their new living arrangement.)

While Bartholomew is readying his goodbyes, Maxwell’s teenage son, Tony (Gerald Caesar), is figuring out who he wants to be. When Antoine, a femme and fabulous boy from school (Ryan Jamaal Swain), is caught sneaking out of Tony’s room, Tony reveals that he’s more than just a friend. “That’s your type?” Maxwell asks derisively, betraying a reflexive narrow-mindedness. (Tony had already confided in Charles, Maxwell’s more understanding husband, played by Randy Harrison.) But Bartholomew is pleased. “Bring it in, Champ!” he says, with a predictable aphorism about apples falling from trees.

Then he grows wistful. “I wish I would’ve had somebody hug me when I came out of the closet,” he continues.

Now, Chloe (Tiffany Villarin), a gracious in-home nurse, is Bartholomew’s most intimate source of comfort. The ghost of his dead partner (also played by Swain) haunts him like the pain he refuses to rate honestly on a scale from one to 10.

Learning to let go — of personal hang-ups, social expectations and ultimately of life itself — is at the heart of “… What the End Will Be,” which is not shy on sentimentality. Directed by Margot Bordelon, the 90-minute production would not feel out of place on prime-time television, where straightforward setups deliver clear emotional payoffs with a side of laughs. But there’s gratifying nourishment in Ra’s recipe, a restorative fantasy as much as it is an unabashed tear-jerker.

What if instead of being presumed absent, Black fathers were depicted as fallibly present? And rather than having his life taken away, a Black man were pictured in control over how he leaves the world? That all of the men in Ra’s play are gay fuels his confrontation with the assumptions and limitations heaped on them because they are Black.

Assured and affecting performances from the cast succeed in tugging at heartstrings, especially Smith’s, whose frail ox ready for pasture is rueful but grounded, in a role that might easily turn maudlin. Swain is a total delight as the most self-actualized queen in the room, unwilling to dim his light for anyone still living in the dark. (“I’ve been offending people since I twirled out of the womb,” he says.)

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Bordelon’s staging for Roundabout Theater Company balances the play’s humor with its sobering central conceit. The slickly appointed interior, designed by Reid Thompson and covered with art that Bartholomew describes as Afrocentric, demonstrates Maxwell’s faith in the protective powers of material wealth. But money is no defense from human frailty.

“… What the End Will Be” is less wide-ranging and conceptual than Ra’s previous work Off Broadway, “In the Southern Breeze,” and more playful and light-footed than “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” also staged by Roundabout when he was known as Jiréh Breon Holder.

In “… What the End Will be,” facing death really means reckoning with life — what makes it worth living despite its impermanence — and learning how to seize some measure of joy for yourself. It’s everything that is meant when we say that Black lives matter.

… What the End Will Be
Through July 10 at the Laura Pels Theater, Manhattan; roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.


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