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... what the end will be

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 2, 2022

Keith Randolph Smith and Gerald Caesar
Photo by Joan Marcus
A singular spellbinding performance and a beautifully scripted, deeply moving story of self-determination, redemption, and love lie at the heart of Mansa Ra's ... what the end will be, a play about a cross-generational family of Black gay men, opening tonight at the Laura Pels Theater.

Keith Randolph Smith, last seen on Broadway in the 2017 Tony-winning revival of August Wilson's Jitney, is thoroughly engrossing as 74-year-old Bart Kennedy who has just moved in with his son Max (Emerson Brooks) and grandson Tony (Gerald Caesar). Bart is mostly wheelchair bound and is, as we quickly learn, very close to the end of his life, his body wracked with terminal cancer.

In Smith's hands, every line reading, every gesture, every interaction with his family and with the hospice nurse Chloe (Tiffany Villarin) speaks volumes about Bart, who learned late in life (but not too late) to unburden himself from the expectations he fully believed he needed to live up to, and, instead, to open his heart and be true to himself. Now, at the end of his days, he is determined to reconcile with Max and offer guidance to 18-year-old Tony. As "Hallmark card" as this synopsis might sound, I can only say that mawkishness is avoided at every turn, and what comes through is pretty much unadulterated honesty.

If ... what the end will be were entirely focused on Bart, that would provide ample material for a completely rewarding evening in itself. But Mansa Ra (aka Jiréh Breon Holder, whose well-received Too Heavy for Your Pocket was a 2017 production of Roundabout Underground) has incorporated another, less well-developed plot thread, about what it has meant across the three generations to be Black and gay.

Ryan Jamaal Swain and Emerson Brooks
Photo by Joan Marcus
In this, the focus is largely on the character of Max, the one caught in the middle of the generations. On the face of it, Max is all about appearances, rising up the corporate ladder, playing golf with the boss, and living in the best home money can buy. One look at Reid Thompson's gorgeous set design will quickly clue you in, a luxuriously furnished home featuring walls covered in original art works ("Very Afrocentric," Bart says when Max asks what he thinks of them). A place for everything and everything in its place is Max, a victim of his own absolutism about what he believes it means to be an upwardly mobile Black man in the white world in which he generally operates. This includes his ambivalence about being married to a white man, Charles (Randy Harrison), charming and generous of spirit, but as a character mostly functional, like the hospice nurse.

Then there is Tony, Max's son, whose main purpose seems to be to serve as the next link in the chain of gay Black men in the family. While he has learned from his father to keep that side of his life more-or-less secret, we do meet his boyfriend Antoine (Ryan Jamaal Swain), as comfortably out, proud, flashy, and flamboyant as they come.

Certainly, the evolving story about gay Black men and women is a significant one to be explored in the theater. In this season alone, there have been a number of plays on and off Broadway largely about or featuring gay Black characters, including A Strange Loop, Fat Ham, Slave Play, Thoughts of a Colored Man, and Chicken & Biscuits, to name five. With three generations of gay Black men together in one play, there is so much that could have been examined about the slowly opening closet door. But, with the exception of a handful of insightful lines of dialog here and there, ... what the end will be only suggests what needs to be deeply explored. Neither the playwright nor director Margot Bordelon has found a way to give this side of the play its full due, and the two separate plot lines weave around each other without ever fully connecting. In truth, everything of real weight rests on the character of the older Bart Kennedy and on Keith Randolph Smith's extraordinary performance. The rest will have to wait until the next play.

... what the end will be
Through July 10, 2022
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street (Between 6th and 7th Avenue)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: