‘Kings of America’ forces perspective on office of US presidency

Jordan Stidham, J'cyn Crawley and Will Springhorn Jr. in Kings of America. Photo by [Photo: Charr Crail]

A precocious teen struggles to process the loss of his father, as former US presidents visit his dreams.

In Sacramento Theatre Company’s Kings of America, hometown playwright Sean Patrick Nill wields themes more historical than literary in his exploration of the nature and history of the highest office in America.

J’cyn Crawley makes his professional debut as angsty teen Noah, whose once-spectacular grades are falling as he tries to navigate life without his father who—like Noah—had been a history buff.

Between sessions with Noah’s school counselor and psychiatrist, the audience accompanies him into the dreamscape, where he meets, jokes and often argues with former US presidents.

In his first dream sequence, Noah meets the Roosevelts, wheelchair-bound Franklin Delano (who turns out to be a bit of a souse—downing martinis in rapid succession) and Teddy. The three watch as America elects Barack Obama, and Noah, who is black, expresses a hope for the future that does not manifest in his waking life.

Noah’s next encounter takes place as he drifts off at a movie theater, where he is joined in the seats by presidents Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy. The three discuss the public perception biases and popularity contests enshrined in modern US politics, forcing the audience to rethink their memories and the legacies of the two Democrats.

Will Springhorn Jr. as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Kings of America. [Photo by Charr Crail]

Perhaps most fun is trying to parse out Nill’s reasoning for the presidential pairings (there are always two) in his dream scenes. Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson play chess and talk with Noah amid calls from Noah’s mother in the real world. Jackson is verbose and aggressive. Lincoln, who seems to be winning the game, speaks only in careful aphorisms.

Bill Clinton oozes irreverent charisma (a brilliant and hilarious portrayal by Jordan Stidham) as George Washington marches around, quoting and citing “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior,” which he’d plagiarized.

All the presidents, as well as Noah’s school counselor, psychiatrist and history teacher are played in dizzying rotation—and to the audience’s delight—by Stidham, John Lamb and Will Springhorn, Jr.

While it is at first disappointing that the small cast doesn’t include a woman (beyond the voice of Noah’s mother, on the other side of his bedroom door), this is in earnest a story about the nation’s patriarchal figures and a boy’s struggle with the loss of his own father.

“Gore Vidal famously called this country, ‘The United States of Amnesia’. I agree whole-heartedly with his criticism,” says playwright Nill in the production’s 24-page study guide.

And, yes, the production works to highlight—and then question—our tendency to glorify or vilify those occupying the office of the US presidency, depending on our own ideological biases.

It is a uniquely jagged pill to swallow in light of the events following the 2016 election. One could, however, argue that the fact that the words “Trump administration” even need to pass our lips today is a direct result of these issues.

John Lamb, Will Springhorn Jr. and J’cyn Crawley in Kings of America. [Photo by Charr Crail]

The climax of the production is a dream including presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush as fleshed-out sources of empathy. For the viewer with strong views on Watergate and Nixon’s (often bigoted) comments in his White House tapes, or the viewer who today considers Bush II a war criminal, it is a particularly difficult one to process.

But perhaps that’s the point.

In the end, Kings of America is a fun, mostly successful production imagined by a homegrown playwright. The youngest players show potential that will surely expand in nuance with experience, and the more seasoned hit some fantastic, often hilarious notes.

Kings of America plays through Dec. 10, 2017, at Sacramento Theatre Company, Pollock Stage, 1419 H Street. For tickets and information, go to STC’s website.

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Dave Kempa
Dave Kempa is the founder and editor of VOICES: River City.