|Tonya Pinkins, Philippe Bowgen and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson. Photo Joan Marcus|
Sins of the Fathers Visit Throughout the Generations
By Lauren Yarger
When relatives gather at the hospital bed of a stroke victim, family tensions reach new dimensions in the world premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ War at Tale Rep.
Feuding siblings Tate (Donté Bonner) and Joanne (Rachael Holmes) bicker as their mother, Roberta (Tonya Pinkins) lies in a coma. Why didn’t Joanne call him sooner, blunt speaking, take-charge Tate wants to know. And what was she thinking marrying a white guy like Malcolm (Greg Keller), a “going-nowhere,” unmotivated dude who is obsessed with talking to political operative Tate about President Obama and why his family should or shouldn’t be called “African-American”? Maybe he should just quit his job and take care of things at home since he recently broke up with his partner? At any rate, Joanne is offended by the message that Tate finds her less than satisfactory on so many levels.
The siblings’ war escalates with each attempting to throw the other out of the room, much to the distress of Roberta’s over-the-top, effeminate nurse (amusingly portrayed by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson). Meanwhile, they need to figure out who the mysterious German-speaking woman who arrived in the ambulance with their mother is. With the help of her irate son and translator, Tobias (Philippe Bowgen), they discover that Elfriede (Trezana Beverley) is Roberta’s sister.
Meanwhile, scenes are interrupted (the barely set stage designed by Mariana Sanchez Hernandez inclines and narrows with lighting effect designed by Yi Zhao), as we visit Roberta in her coma (sound effects by Bray Poor). She is in a strange place where an ape named Alpha (also Henderson) helps her try to remember what was happening in her life. She does recall Elfriede, her recently discovered sister, the result of her father’s wartime romance in Germany. Elfriede’s mother apparently was one in a long line of indiscretions clouding Roberta’s memories of her father.
Nothing is very clear (the ape’s language is translated for us in projected captions designed by Kristen Ferguson) and Roberta isn’t even sure she likes her daughter…. Oh, and by the way, Alpha likes the fact that Roberta is so different from her kind (why, we don’t know) and is rather insistent that she mate with him….
OK, back in the land of the dying, we discover that some of Tobias’ anger comes from the fact that Roberta had promised to help her new family financially. Now, she won’t be able to do that and he and his mother are stuck here in a foreign country with no money. Elfriede tries to be helpful to Tate and Joanne, however, by modeling dresses that might look attractive on their mother in her coffin when she dies and by reading a ridiculously long letter she has written about how much it means to her to have met her own flesh and blood.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz does coax good character portrayals and Pinkins is moving as the woman trying to sort out the confusion of her life before leaving it. Keller provides comic relief as the well intentioned, but mousy husband and Bonner manages to keep officious Tate likable. The playwright, however. who received a 2014 Obie award for Best New American Play for Octoroon and Appropriate, fails to find his message in WAR, which was commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre.
The coma scenes (and a finale scene at DC’s National Zoo) with a bunch of chanting chimps choreographed by David Neumann seem to imply that human behavior hasn’t changed much throughout history, going back as far as when man is believed to have evolved from the apes. but they are confusing and distract from what could be an interesting play about family dynamics, particularly in view of the newfound, entitled-minded relatives.
Tobias’ anger is out of proportion to the situation and beyond giving us a glimpse into who these people are and why they all are so angry, Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t develop them or the themes enough to engage us. Folks leaving the theater were asking ushers what the ape scenes were about. One woman commented that if she had wanted to see a play in a foreign language (the translation of Elfriede’s letter is interminable) she would have gone to the opera.
War rages through Dec. 13 at Yale Repertory Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven. Performance times vary. Tickets $20-$94 www.yalerep.org; (203) 432-1234, Box Office (1120 Chapel St.). Student, senior, and group rates are available.