Bayard Rustin and Walter Jenkins, two men who sat next to other kings of their era — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson — are hardly remembered today. Due to their queerness, they were edited out of the very history they had made.
Steven Jackson, award-winnning playwright and Artistic Director of Minmar Gaslight Productions, was inspired by these two men to write his play, The Seat Next to the King. The play explores race and sexuality through a fictional encounter between two real historical figures.
There were five showings of the play from Jun. 12 to Jun. 16 in Hagey Hall.
The showings took place in a smaller theatre, seating less than a hundred people and bringing the story closer to each viewer.
Rustin was an African-American leader in civil rights, gay rights, socialism, and non-violence movements. Kwaku Okyere, 26, portrays Rustin powerfully as both a man confident in queerness and Blackness, but also affected by his ostracization by other members of his social movements.
Conor Ling, 25, played the role of Jenkins to a similar intensity. Jenkins was a man at war with himself — both indulging and despising his sexuality at once.
Ling expressed the anger and frustration, as well as the gentleness and love that resided within Jenkins with conviction.
The chemistry between Ling and Okyere was electric. Both actors executed their roles with minimal written stage directions and lots of creative support from director Tanisha Taitt.
Matt White, artistic director of Greenlight Arts and professor of speech communication at UW, played a key role in bringing The Seat Next to the King to UW.
“When I look at this piece, I see people having their own exchange and trying to be seen and trying to connect and it’s almost like that reaching out,” he said. “Bayard is trying to reach through to Walter and Walter is sort of drowning in who he is and almost trying to reach out and get him out of this pit of despair, because he’s been told that he can’t be who he is.”
Okyere stated that Rustin felt like his ancestor. As a queer Black man himself, Okyere felt that Rustin’s experience mirrored his own.
“I understand what it feels like to be marginalized twice – so you’re a person of colour and you’re queer, so the way the world interacts with you and the way you interact with the world suddenly changes by virtue of your identity,” he said. “ [But love] is above gender, it’s above class, it’s above anything that could possibly separate people .”
Ling is not queer himself, but believes that plays like The Seat Next to the King are important for allies and queer folks alike.
“I feel like people who call themselves allies need to hold themselves accountable. Because the people who are the oppressors in the world are the people who aren’t allies,” he said. “If you don’t actively show that you’re not one of [the oppressors], then there’s no distinction.”
White echoed Ling’s opinion on the role of allies, and stated that people need to snap out of their complacency.
“We have to snap out of a complacency … there are certain people who are just living it every f*cking day,” he said. “I think those who consider themselves allies have to snap out of a complacency and do what we can to help fortify the work that everyone has done before.”