I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how hard it feels to just be an adult person in the world right now, as if all the patterns and habits that we all relied on to get us through, all the little certainties of the day to day, have been upended and tossed in the air like pick up sticks and we don’t know the first thing about ourselves anymore. Collectively, it seems like we’re lonely and scared and stuck and wanting everything to change, except we’re also terrified that change might be worse. Sometimes the tiniest bit of grace can make everything feel okay; sometimes the tiniest bit of loss can make everything fall apart.
Which is to say, Eboni Booth’s Primary Trust may not be set in a post-pandemic America (in fact, it’s set in an intentionally unspecified “time before smartphones”), and the series of traumas that have beset the life of its protagonist, Kenneth, may lean toward the individual rather the collective, but it still spoke to me of the emotional landscape of the moment in a way that felt all the more surprising for how gentle, even hopeful, the play feels. Booth doesn’t turn a blind eye to the darkness in Kenneth’s life, but the things that weigh him down are often the substrate, rather than the center, of what she’s choosing to focus on.
Primary Trust, in addition to the title of the play, is also the name of the bank where Kenneth works (which we see carved into the pediment on the set), but it’s also, of course, a metaphor, about building relationships of trust out of emotional wreckage, out of the depredations of capitalism, out of grief and rage and unfairness. (One of the sneakily devastating things about Primary Trust is the way that the encroachment of a more rapacious capitalism is always tickling around the edges of the play’s human interactions–tiki bars replaced by condos, used bookstores by upscale gyms; bank customers upsold into loans and credit cards.)
Kenneth (William Jackson Harper) lives a small but safe life in Cranberry, New York, an outer suburb of Rochester. The only child of a single mother who died when he was ten, he grew up in an orphanage as one of the few Black people in a mostly white town. (As with the reminders of capitalism’s looming threats, the play’s engagement with racial issues nibbles at the edges rather than being the center of the story; we get hints of incidents from Kenneth’s past, but these are mostly clues dropped but left as ambiance rather than narrative.) He started working in a local bookstore as soon as he aged out of foster care, and there he’s stayed for twenty years. He goes to work, he goes to happy hour at Wally’s tiki bar, he drinks too many mai tais with his best–and only–friend, Bert (Eric Berryman) . . . rinse and repeat. The passage of time is denoted in two ways: by a sharp “ding” on a desk bell, the meaning of which isn’t always clear, and more effectively by a rotating series of Wally’s waiters, all played by April Matthis–as are all the bank customers–with delightful variety. You can see that Mathis, Booth, and director Knud Adams have taken care and joy with giving each of these micro-characters a grounded reality. The overall number of waiters feels mildly improbable for a small-town establishment, but over twenty years, Kenneth and the colorful tiki glasses may indeed be the only constants.
But Kenneth’s hold on his small but safe life is a lot more tenuous than it appears. The thing is, Bert is more of an imaginary friend, a crutch created by a damaged child that is now barely propping up the man that child has become. (Mild spoiler alert, but Booth reveals it less than ten minutes in.) And even the kind Wally’s staff have only so much patience for the guy drinking alone in the corner every night, especially because that guy has also been known to have anger issues from time to time. (Kenneth’s relationship to alcohol is another one of those areas that is treated as subtext rather than text; he clearly seems to overindulge in the mai tais and it’s not much of a stretch that some of his actions stem from this–but on the other hand, he seems perfectly able to drink less when circumstances demand.) And also, Sam (Jay O. Sanders), Kenneth’s boss at the bookstore, is selling up. So Kenneth is going to have to grapple with change, whether he wants to or not. (He does not.)
But despite his considerable anxieties about being able to get or hold a job where he has to be “normal” and interact with others, Kenneth gets a job as a bank teller after a tip from new waitress Corrina (Mathis again). And to his surprise, it’s not so bad. His new boss, Clay (Sanders), may be a little bit of a good old boy, an ex football player with a little too much nostalgia for the good old days, but he’s not a bad guy–Sanders gives him enough self-knowledge so that he’s always a little bit poking fun at himself–and he seems to have genuine affection for Kenneth. Whether that affection is for “Kenneth who makes his branch money” or “Kenneth who reminds him of his brother” isn’t always entirely clear, but maybe it doesn’t matter. And Kenneth originally finds the idea of upselling his customers a little distasteful–trying to get people to take out loans or apply for credit cards they don’t need, or make more deposits they might have wanted to take somewhere else–but when he turns out to be unexpectedly good at it, he almost doesn’t know what to do with himself.
Harper keeps us at a measured distance from Kenneth for the early part of the play; it’s not that he doesn’t let us see Kenneth’s emotions but that those emotions are guarded and cautious. But the rare dazzling smile that breaks through when Kenneth has a taste of success in his job, or when he starts to make a real friend of Corrina, says everything. (One thing I really liked about the play is that there’s not a drop of will-they-or-won’t they; Corrina has a partner; Kenneth is never for a second hitting on her; and once that’s established, they go on to be great friends in a way whose complexities have everything to do with personality and nothing to do with sexual tension.)
But those small steps forward don’t make him any less fragile or broken, or defensive when things aren’t going so smoothly. Everything can still come crashing down, and he can still so easily sabotage himself. Kenneth has really only known loss, and it’s hard to trust that any relationship won’t end in betrayal–even things with Bert can take a dark turn.
Knud Adams’s production is realized with enormous delicacy of touch: there’s an aura of gentleness that could edge on twee if it wasn’t so carefully handled. The design elements tiptoe just the tiniest way toward whimsy (Okay, the falling snow might tip a little too far.): Marsha Ginsberg’s set, with its not quite miniature buildings, so Kenneth and everyone else feels just a little out of scale. Isabella Byrd’s lighting, with subtle color shifts from day to night. Even the Hawaiian shirts on the Wally’s staff (costumes by Qween Jean) feel relatively sedate (for Hawaiian shirts, anyway). Original music, written and performed live by Luke Wygodny, plays as a soft background score throughout on cello, guitar, keyboard (with the occasional recognizable tune in the mix). The performances are just the tiniest bit stylized, a little reminder that we’re operating inside Kenneth’s recounting of events. (Eric Berryman, as Bert, has a challenging role–Bert’s character is a reflection of Kenneth’s needs, and then his fears–and he has the hardest time nailing the tone as well.) In the end, the play is hopeful, but it’s not saccharine; progress is incremental at best, and those dark shadows stay firmly anchored to the subtext.
It’s such a simple piece and its tone is so carefully balanced, it has a hard road to walk: one breath in the wrong direction and it could so easily slip into sentimentality, into melodrama, into mumblecore, into irrelevance. But Booth, Adams, and Harper navigate deftly to a place where the hopefulness feels earned. I am not someone who’s easily swayed by emotional uplift, but I found Primary Trust genuinely touching in the end.