By Karen K. Isaacs
If you are seeing the world premier of War by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins now at the Yale Rep through Dec. 13, plan on arriving early enough to read the interview with the playwright in the program. Otherwise, you may be very lost at times.
War is one of those plays that by attempting to do too much, ends up doing very little.
We meet African-American siblings (Tate and Joanne) at the bedside of their mother who has had a stroke; they are obviously estranged. But also there is a woman (Elfriede) they have never seen before but was obviously in the mother’s apartment and came with her in the ambulance. The woman is German and speaks little English but enough to say they are sisters and have been corresponding. Soon, her son (Tobias) arrives.
We quickly learn more. Roberta, the mother, has money from her father who was very successful in business; in fact the two siblings have trust funds. Joanne is married to Malcolm, who is white and whom Tate disdains. Tate is involved in politics but is leaving his job in a campaign.
So what happens? First of all, both Tate and Tobias are angry. It is never clear why Tate is so angry but he clearly feels his sister is wasting her life and that she was the favorite of their father. He berates her for her handling of the mother’s situation and states he should make the decisions since he is closer to their mother. It is sibling rivalry in high gear.
Tobias is also angry or unbalanced. Elfriede and he have come to visit Roberta hoping she will help them with money because of some sort of hereditary disease that one or both of them have. It is never clear.
It is the back story that is most interesting. The grandfather was a soldier in the still segregated Army stationed in Germany at the end of World War II. There he met and had a relationship with a German woman — Elfriede is the child of that relationship.
While we have heard the stories of the half-American and the half-African American children left behind in Vietnam and Korea, and the prejudices these children faced, few artistic works have discussed the plight of the children of US soldier left behind in Europe, particularly those of mixed race.
This could have been an interesting story. And what is the hereditary disease that German relatives suffer from?
The sibling relationship is also interesting and could have been developed so much more. Tate has a diatribe with Malcolm about the term African-American which he obviously dislikes intensely.
But the author has another point or two that he is trying to make.
According to his interview, he also wants to comment on language and how we communicate. He speaks of a writing exercise about apes trapped in a glass cage and using some sort of sign language.
So the story of Tate and Joanna and the rest is framed arounds a group of apes in some sort of cage. They make sounds and gestures and we see what it means projected in superscript. Into this periodically wanders Roberta who has lost some of her language skills due to her stroke. In some ways this recalls the Arthur Kopit play Wings which also had its world premier at Yale (in 1978).
Since Wings, other playwrights have also used various ways to show us the problems of stroke and brain injured people have with communicating and language.
Tonya Pinkins plays Roberta. Hers is a difficult role; much of what she says is fragments and she does not interact with the other characters. But she impresses us with her presence.
Donté Bonner portrays Tate as the angry man he is. If we never truly understand the basis of his anger, that is more the playwright’s fault than the performer. In fact that is the problem with all of the performances — the actors can give us the lines and the surfaces but the depth is just not in the roles. Tyrone Mitchell Henderson who plays two roles — Alpha the ape and the nurse — has the most to work with.
The set by Mariana Sanchez Hernandez, costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting by Yi Zhao, and sound by Bray Poor all try to convey the three settings — the glass cage, the hospital room, and Roberta’s home. The latter does not seem to reflect a woman with money.
Like many world premieres, War directed by Leleana Blain-Cruz is surely a work in progress. I’m just not sure where it will end up and if it will be worth it.
War is at Yale Rep through Dec. 13, at the Yale Repertory Theater, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven, CT. For tickets contact www.yalerep.org.