Review: Samuel J. and K. (Steppenwolf Theatre)

  
  

Steppenwolf Young Adults feature plays it loose with plausibility, plot

  
  

Cliff Chamberlain and Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
Samuel J. and K.
   
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by
Ron OJ Parson
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through March 13  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There’s no shortage of local shout-outs in director Ron OJ Parson’s Naperville-based family drama. Its dialogue makes generous references to landmark spots and (much to the amusement of the opening morning’s audience) a neighboring rivalry. In promotional materials, playwright and suburban native Mat Smart suggests elements of the play are semi-biographical. The Young Adults presentation will play to many teens who directly relate to its characters and their circumstances. This play wants to be relevant, and wants to be real.

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.Its themes—identity, fate, racial definition, nature vs. nurture, brotherly love—are. So why do the stakes in Samuel J. and K. feel so low? And its story, lacking in authenticity?

Before adopted, black Samuel K. (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) walks to receive his college diploma, he and his older white brother Samuel J. (Cliff Chamberlain) indulge in a family tradition down at the basketball court. Too eager to wait, reaction-snap-cam in-hand, J. halts the game and begs K. to open his gift envelope; it contains two expensive, non-refundable, unsolicited and unwanted tickets to J.’s birth city in Cameroon.

Before the first pick-up game is over, the inciting argument comes to a head.

It’s also the audience’s first cue for a small suspension of disbelief: these Sams love each other and are close enough to talk smack and hip-check each other into chain link fences, but they’ve never had the adoptive ‘where is home really’ talk before? At that age? Having not yet built an understanding of the brothers’ dynamic, we’re launched into an issues talk before the relationship study has gotten a chance to get off the ground.

No sooner than we can ponder the implications of the gift or the risk of the trip are we whisked away to a mosquito net-lined bed in Africa—on the last day of the vacation.

Points where one would expect build—the inevitable second discussion (there had to have been more than one), the anxieties leading up to the trip, the arrival—are skipped over, making room for barely conceivable twists, including a borderline absurd subplot involving a mutual romantic interest. It’s a limp, manipulative device seemingly employed for no other purpose than to conjure a requisite “you’re not my real brother!”

Chamberlain makes do with his character’s under-supported choices, lending credibility to some of the play’s more outlandish ideas. As K., Roberson, Jr. has the tendency to over act, the perception of which is compounded by the valleys and holes in Smart’s script.

Lacking enough logic to create dramatic build, Samuel J. and K. is a two-man show in which the eponymous characters remain elusive. What are audiences—young or old—supposed to glean from that?

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
  
 

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REVIEW: The Lost Boys of Sudan (Victory Gardens Theatre)

Rhyming verse, didactic storytelling hinder production

 (from left) Leslie Ann Sheppard, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Namir Smallwood, Kenn E. Head, Ann Joseph, Adeoye, Latricia Sealy and Nambi E. Kelley.  Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

 
Victory Gardens presents:
 
The Lost Boys of Sudan
 
Written by Lonnie Carter
Directed by
Jim Corti
at
Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 Lincoln (map)
through April 25th (more info)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

(from left) K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood) and T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) . Photo credit: Liz LaurenFrom the Sudanese desert to the frozen plains of Fargo, Lonnie Carter‘s The Lost Boys of Sudan is epic in scope. The story of three displaced Sudanese teenagers, the play uses the central plot of the boys’ search for a home as a stepping-stone to discussing such varied topics as religion, colonialism, and poaching – but Carter’s critiques often diminish the emotional intensity of the core relationship between the boys. The best parts of the play are when the boys are faced with the trials that come  from their circumstances: escaping crazed oil riggers, encountering twelve year old foot soldiers, boarding the plane to Fargo.  But the juxtaposition of this powerful storytelling versus generalized rants about the “Palinolithic age” only serve to derail the production.

The writing switches between prose and rhyming verse, and the shift is often jarring and unnecessary. Rhyming words become the ear’s focus and distract from the action of the play, and sometimes the rhymes feel like a stretch so that they can fit into the script (main offenders: "wet noodle" and "caboodle"; reciting "the itsy bitsy spider").

The efforts of director Jim Corti and his talented ensemble balance out the flaws of the writing, creating a final product that is technically impressive and incredibly polished. All of the actors have a great handle on the difficult African dialects, and as maligned as the verse may be, the entire ensemble approached the language with confidence. Narrator Ayoun (Nambi E. Kelley) does a great job connecting with the audience, delicately controlling the script’s wordplay and adding depth to the occasionally purple prose.

The boys, T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), have great chemistry together, firmly established in those first moments where they must band together to brave the dangers of their hostile environment. The three actors do a great job of playing roles considerably younger than their actual ages, and as the characters mature you can hear the changes in their voices and see it in their bodies.

(front, w/gun) Adeoye plays a Sudanese guerrilla fighter, who confronts three Lost Boys (rear, from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), and A.I.Josh (Namir Smallwood) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo: Liz Lauren) (from left) T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.), A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), and K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard) in Victory Gardens Theater's Chicago premiere of The Lost Boys of Sudan (photo credit: Liz Lauren)
Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. is one of three teens who makes an extraordinary passage from Sudan, to of all places, Fargo, North Dakota, in Lonnie Carter's "The Lost Boys of Sudan" (photo: Brett Neiman) lost-boys3

Sheppard gives a stand-out performance as K-Gar, the girl whose mother dresses her up as a boy to escape rebels razing their village, proving herself this season’s go-to girl for playing younger characters (The Hundred Dresses, The Snow Queen). K-Gar finds strength in her masculine disguise, one powerful scene has her taking up arms against men looking to enlist them as child soldiers, and this power stays with her even after she reveals herself and begins her life as a woman in America. After graduating high school, she refuses to stay in the sheltered United States, instead returning to Sudan so that she can counsel children like Twelve (Latricia Kamiko Sealy), a gun-toting preteen killer.

In Carter’s high concept script, Twelve is the concept that works the best. She appears at the start of the production to kill A.I. Josh’s father, later returning as a radio operator and finally a student at the camp where the lost boys are rescued. Twelve is the voice of all the children of Sudan, and Sealy plays the character with a ferocity that transforms into vulnerability as her immature mind copes with the terrors she committed. Twelve reveals the life the main characters would have if they had not escaped the various threats they encounter, and serves as a fantastic foil for the main characters, a lost girl that is never rescued.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

 

(front, from left) Nambi E. Kelley, Leslie Ann Sheppard, LaTricia Kamiko Sealy, and (rear, from left) Adeyoye, Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., Kenn E. Head and Ann Joseph (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

 

      

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