by David A. Rosenberg
Call “[War]” a “work in progress” rather than a “world premiere.” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ new play at Yale Rep is a promising but jumbled evening, far from fully formed.
Rather, it’s a cornucopia of ideas, fragments, bits that seem to have festered in the mind of a talented writer (“Appropriate,” “An Octoroon” -- both off-Broadway successes), now to be sprinkled on stage in no particular order. Not only does it not solve what should be a playwright’s first question to himself (“What story do I want to tell?”), it’s a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from several games, a work in desperate need of a hard-nosed dramaturge.
Because it starts with actors slowly entering, laughing heartily, then imitating grunting apes, the play’s emerging thematic style would seem to be sardonic objectivity. Don’t take this seriously, we’re prompted to think, or, if you do, believe the laughter as that of the gods saying, “You humans think you’re so blessed, but you forget where you came from.” We’re animals, apes in particular, sharing DNA with our simian ancestors, an idea fostered by having the actors view us as the caged ones
First, a woman, Roberta, is in a coma from a stroke. There she lies in her hospital bed, hooked up to IVs and oxygen while her doppelganger walks and talks. Under the tutelage of Alpha (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), the head ape in the guise of a compassionate (though unnecessarily effeminate) nurse, Roberta tries to remember who she is, how she got here and where she might go. His questions and her answers are projected on walls of Mariana Sanchez Hernandez’s pristine set.
Roberta (beautifully played by Tonya Pinkins) remains the center of the enterprise, although digressions diffuse even her plot line. Side-trips to discussions of politics, slavery, “mischlingkinder” (post-World War II children of white German women and African-American soldiers), eugenics and evolution just about sink the evening.
The second act switches to Roberta’s apartment, dominated by hideous floral wallpaper. After talk of why the term “African-American” should or should not be used (leading to a funny gag about Asian-Americans), we’re subjected to an endless letter, read in German by Roberta’s sister, Elfriede (Trezana Beverley), and verbally translated by her irascible son, Tobias (Philippe Bowgen). Roberta has children, too: gay son Tate (Donte Bonner) is all anger and frustration, while pregnant Joanne (Rachael Holmes) is married to a white man (Greg Keller). Sibling rivalry simmers; everyone is at war with something.
The ape sequences also refer to Europeans’ making monkey sounds to African-American soldiers. More specifically, it was on a visit to the zoo when Roberta had her stroke.
President Obama’s presence hangs about, as if the election of a half-white, half-black man has paradoxically exacerbated America’s racial problems. (“I do not want to spend the rest of my life explaining myself to white people,” says Tate. “That is my actual nightmare.”)
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz tries her best to wade through all the clutter, with mixed results. Perhaps what’s really bugging the author is contained in Elfriede’s letter: “I know now what a privilege it is to know your own flesh, to be able to look into a face that is also your face in some way or the face of your parents or their parents.” Perhaps that’s what might have been dramatized in the present tense, not read as a missive from the past.