What if we found each other by touch? What kind of world would that look like? I wondered this after seeing the play My Brother’s a Keeper at the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!) on November 12. I thought about touch because, while the play has several issues that need to be addressed, there is a beating heart to it: an interlude at a bus stop when two characters (among a cast of five) let go of verbal language, relinquishing it while demonstrating its limits.
Cecil (David J. Cork) is in a romantic relationship with Charlene (Samantha-Rae McLean). In this moment, Cecil attempts to tell his friend Kevin (Glenn Quentin) about his growing feelings of desire for him. Cecil tries and fails. The words seem inadequate to him, as they do at times to us. (I make a living by using words and often run into this problem, like rounding a corner into a brick wall.) As Cecil puts his arm around Kevin, draping it like a comforting scarf, the play essentially stops. The lighting focuses on them, and an omniscient, male voice begins to read aloud what sound like passages from the King James Bible. Images are projected on the screen behind them, but I keep my eyes completely on Kevin and Cecil. They do a kind of interpretive dance with their hands, moving to face each other, then touch palm to palm, moving closer, moving away. Then comes a kind of brotherly caress over the other’s shoulders, arms, and chest, in intimacy and awareness and profound care, as the overhead voice intones, “I will put my spirit in you, and you will live.” They mostly maintain eye contact while doing this, and I am made aware of the profundity of the human endeavor to physically touch other people in ways that are not rooted in the urge to dominate or police our boundaries, imagining that our agency is coextensive with our inviolability. The contact is not sexual, but it is charged with all the potentialities of sex: knowledge of the other and oneself, comfort, terror, quenching the thirst of curiosity.
The play starts very differently. It opens with an overhead projected text that declares the drama to be about the “90s, Hip hop, Bisexual(ity), community, and Fort Greene.” In case the audience misses that, the banners that serve as makeshift wings for the stage offer such phrases as “Charlene’s Soul and Comfort Food,” just to make sure we know where and when we are. The play is essentially a coming-out story in which two characters come to realize, acknowledge, and act on their queer desire for each other, while the other characters model what the writer, Dr. Herukhuti, imagines to be their friends’ likely responses to bisexuality: confusion, shock, revulsion, and loving comprehension and acceptance.
Despite this provocative agenda, about 30 minutes into the show I found myself sighing audibly at what seemed like the seventh scene change, as if the stage lighting were on a pay-as-you-go timer. Generally, the set design was lackluster. For example, a simple, nonperspectival drawing of a desk on cloth is supposed to help anchor the backstory of Kevin as a writer and activist, thus giving him greater depth. He delivers an entire monologue in which he talks about and gestures toward the “desk,” and the scene feels insipid, I think partly because there is no touch, just the confection of language pointing toward something missing.
Mostly, however, I was disappointed with the writing. The dialogue makes the work feel like less of a drama and more of a to-do list of social justice concerns that the author believes are crucial for urban, LGBTQ folks, and people of color to consider. Thus the audience receives long soliloquies on the need for widespread schooling reform and educational organizations created by and for local communities; on the rapacious and mercenary policies permitting the rising rents in New York City that displace long-term residents and shrink our quality of life; on HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention; on the usefulness of a meditation practice. These are critical issues. But the play spends so much time ticking these boxes that the plot is lost. I can’t tell whether Herukhuti freighted the work with all these goods because he thought he could secure our emotional commitment once we identified with them, or because he imagined himself in the role of teacher, responsible for educating us. The didactic nature of many of the orations makes me think the latter.
I suspect that the play wants to provide a kind of foundation for the exploration of sexuality, when one’s self-awareness alone cannot get one all the way there. It’s about dealing honestly with others. Certainly, in African-American and Caribbean-American contexts, this is crucial, because homosexuality is often viewed as a pathology and a threat to community cohesion. Realizing this, Herukhuti has written a story that draws its strength from the conviction that truthfulness and openness hold out the promise of awakening us to all our different forms of loving. Where it comes alive is not in the telling, but in its profoundly intimate showing.
My Brother’s a Keeper was performed at the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (2474 Westchester Avenue, Westchester Square, the Bronx) on November 12.