Engaging War at Yale Rep
By Amy J. Barry
There is more than one war going on in War, commissioned by and premiering at Yale Repertory Theatre.
There is the aftermath of World War II, the war of wills between family members, and the war between conflicting feelings in the characters’ own hearts and minds. It is how playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins weaves all these warring factions together that creates what is fascinating and somewhat flummoxing about this play.
The action begins in present time in a Washington, DC hospital room where Roberta (Tonya Pinkins) lies unconscious after just having a stroke. Her son Tate (Donte Bonner) and daughter Joanne (Rachael Holmes) have just arrived, and upset by their mother’s condition, instantly begin fighting -- about everything.
A stranger appears at Roberta’s bedside -- a nervous German woman named Elfriede (Trezana Beverley). She claims to be Roberta’s sister. Soon Elfriede’s hyperactive son Tobias (Philippe Bowgen) appears and reveals a family secret that Roberta has kept hidden from her children: their African American grandfather, who served in World War II, had a relationship with a white German woman, who gave birth to one black daughter -- Roberta, and one white daughter -- Elfriede.
This was such a common occurrence during the American occupation of Germany after the war that these children of mixed race were given the name mischlingkinder -- and the resultant ostracizing by all factions of society is something Jacobs-Jenkins says he’s wanted to write about for a long time.
Interspersed between the scenes in the hospital are mystical dream sequences that take place in Roberta’s head as she struggles to come out of her coma and back to the present, and at the same time make peace with the past. She is surrounded by the family members who turn into apes, headed by Alpha (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), who appears to be some sort of spiritual guide or ancestor -- his animal sounds projected as words above the actors. The ape noises also allude to sounds German citizens reportedly made at black soldiers. In a complimentary role, Henderson also plays Roberta’s take charge, quick-witted nurse.
Scene two finds us in Roberta’s house -- the colorful wallpaper and comfortable furnishings contrasting with the sterile hospital room, which comes to signify life and death.
Here Tate has an impassioned discussion with Joanne’s white husband Malcolm (Greg Keller) about racial/cultural identity. He berates Joanne for not doing more with her potential and for marrying someone as unexceptional as Malcolm. Bonner gives his all to the incredibly intelligent and successful, yet angry and out-of-touch-with-his-feelings character. Holmes, on the other hand, seems a bit detached in her role as Joanne. But perhaps that’s how she copes with her overwhelming family and situation.
Pinkins draws us into Roberta’s hazy world of a coma, but her character doesn’t create as much sympathy as does Beverley’s portrayal of the tentative, sensitive Elfriede.
There is mention of a hereditary disease the family suffers from but it never becomes clear what it is.
In a touching scene near the end, Tobias translates a letter written in German by his mother to his newly discovered siblings. It describes the alienation she felt as a mischlingkinder, but is ultimately optimistic.
“It is so easy to feel alone in the world,” she says. “Family reminds us that we all were once part of the same thing. It should bring us peace...”
Suffice to say love conquers all -- even the ravages of war.
Lileana Blain-Cruz meets the challenge of directing this play filled with complex layers and messages so that the quick switches in time and place don't confuse the audience. Mariana Sanchez Hernandez’s three distinct scenic designs and Yi Zhao’s mood-altering lighting help create clarity.
As neatly as the ending is tied up, too many loose ends are left unresolved or undeveloped within the play. There are many provocative and important themes, but Jacobs-Jenkins would do well to focus more on less.
War is at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven through Dec. 13. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 203-432-1234 or online at Yale Rep.org
This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.