American Apollo Synopsis

Act I

In early twentieth century Boston we meet Thomas Eugene McKeller, one of many Black men who have fled the racist South to work in Northern cities. At the Hotel Vendome, a celebrity artist, John Singer Sargent, is stopped in his tracks by the arrestingly athletic hotel bellhop, offering him a position as his new artists model. McKeller and Sargent begin a nuanced and complex collaboration, in which McKellers evolution as a model and a collaborator tracks alongside a deepening intimacy with the artist, watched over by the eagle eyes of Sargents friend and benefactor, Isabella Stewart Gardner. McKeller becomes the model for all of Sargents MFA murals, his work at Harvard, but his racial identity is erased in every finished work, an erasure that creates a growing disquiet in McKeller. McKellers increasing ease with Sargent and his world is ruptured by a crisis of trust in McKeller and Sargents personal relationship, precipitated by the personal attack of Sargents former employee, lover and model, the Italian boxer Nicola DInverno. Unable to face the depth of his feelings for his model or his shame at the confrontation, Sargent flees Boston without explanation and McKeller is abandoned, causing disaster for McKellers family back home, who are reliant on the extra money Sargent provides. 

Act II

Reunited by the interventions of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Sargent and McKeller rekindle both their nascent romance and their artistic collaboration. Finally understanding McKeller’s need to be fully ‘seen’ and captured by Sargent, Sargent starts McKeller’s portrait. Their new harmony is immediately derailed by the shocking death of Sargent’s niece in Europe. Promising to return immediately, Sargent once more leaves McKeller alone in Boston. Drawn into the war effort, Sargent writes to McKeller explaining his feelings and the reason for his enlistment as a war artist, but his letter goes astray. Left without word once more, McKeller enlists and departs for basic training. Returning from his tour, Sargent finds McKeller gone. In his absence, Sargent begins to work on the portrait in earnest. McKeller is discharged and returns to angrily confront Sargent for abandoning him a second time. Contrite, Sargent pleads his case, but McKeller is unable to believe in a future together. Attempting to make amends, Sargent plans a romantic trip to Europe with McKeller after the armistice, but McKeller cannot be swayed. He must set his own course, without the vagaries of Sargent’s influence on his life. McKeller’s obstinacy in the face of his authentic intentions silences Sargent. Several years later, Sargent dies in London, and McKeller returns to the studio to pay his respects. There he discovers the act of seeing that he so desperately craved had been present all along, proof of Sargent’s love and devotion in the overwhelming tenderness of his own finished portrait.

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