“WAR” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater closed July 3, 2016, but continues to play out in real life everywhere because the seeds of war reside in each of us. Formidable personalities emerge during a family crisis and an intricate weave of familial grudges, prejudices and judgments create “WAR,” another multi-layered, dramatic tapestry that is Branden’s signature style.
Ben Brantley (The New York Times) called Jacobs-Jenkins “one of this country’s most original and unsettling dramatists.”
Roberta (Charlayne Woodard), an African American family’s matriarch, is lying comatose in an ICU bed after suffering a massive stroke. Her German sister, Elfriede (Michele Shay), sits peacefully by her side. Roberta’s combative children, Joanne (Rachel Nicks) and Tate (Chris Myers), know nothing about their German kin and are trying to figure out who the strange woman is keeping vigil by their mother’s side, while also debating the best care for her and who is legally authorized to provide it. Whenever tempers flare and arguments rise, Elfriede shushes the offenders… Shhh! Like Jesus calming a furious storm, “Peace, Be Still!” (Mark 4:39 & Matthew 8:26) Among many conflicts, Tate is agitated with the presence of Malcolm, Joanne’s white husband (Reggie Gowland), and releases a volley of vitriol on his sister’s underachieving lifestyle…. Shhh! Elfriede’s son, Tobias (Austin Durant), arrives speaking fluent English and shows a signed letter from Roberta promising to share her father’s inheritance with them today, which briefly unites the quarreling siblings in a new facet of angst…Shhh!
In Roberta’s surreal comatose world, the entire cast creates a simian community and the ICU nurse (Lance Coadie Williams) becomes the head ape. They communicate with Roberta, she in English and they in ape-ish grunts with projected translations. In this place Roberta reveals her feelings like; She hates hospitals for making, “You feel humiliated, exposed, caged like some…some animal.” She also fills in some of the holes in the other’s stories:
Elfriede recently introduced herself in a letter to Roberta, who wasn’t sure if it was just a scam for money. But Roberta’s suspicions evaporated at the airport when she first saw Elfriede looking more like their father than she ever did. She immediately decides to share her inheritance because she knows that their father would have halved his endowment had he known about his German daughter.
Paige Evans (LCT3’s former artistic director) said Jacobs-Jenkins “plays are fiercely intelligent, ambitious and boldly theatrical… They challenge, entertain, and unsettle audiences, making us laugh, gasp, and think deeply about race, class, personal ambition and other complex issues.”
In “WAR” an angry Tate at one point argues, “What is mixed race? President Obama is, yet he’s called America’s first BLACK president.” It’s simple and true and obvious and overlooked. Perhaps the unique way Branden challenges us to embrace the obvious and overlooked simple truths is what spotlights his work that continues to garner impressive awards and nominations: 2011 Helen Merrill Award in Playwriting (Emerging Playwright); 2011 Paula Vogel Award (emerging playwright of exceptional talent); 2015 Steinberg Playwrights Award from LCT3; 2016 Windham-Campbell Literature Prize (Drama) at Yale U. which includes $150,000; 2016 PEN/Laura Pels Award (Emerging American Playwright); “An Octoroon” (Obie – Best New American Play); “Gloria” (finalist Pulitzer Prize for Drama, nomination Lucille Lortel Award–Outstanding Play); “Appropriate” (nomination Outer Critics Circle Award– Outstanding New Off-B’way Play; Obie – Best Performance (Johanna Day) and Best Director (Liesl Tommy).
“WAR” is really a play about war and peace. Towards the end, Elfriede reads a beautiful testament she wrote in English (which she can understand, speak and write, though not quickly). She describes the hells she was made to endure for growing up an outsider – a mixed-race child – in white Europe. But the first time she sees a picture of her mother, she finds herself in her mother’s face and feels peace from that connection in the world, even though she never knew her. Seeing her reflection in her son’s face also brings her peace and patience and love.
We are all mixed-race mongrels, racially separated by our dominant traits, but we are all part of the human family. If we look deep enough, we can see ourselves in the faces of others, it should make us feel connected. It should calm us. It should bring us peace.
I am reminded of the rampant police murders of American citizens including; Gynnya McMillen, Hernan Jaramillo, Deravis Caine Rogers, Delrawn Small, Luis Gongora, Symone Nicole Marshall, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. I think of the peaceful national protests their deaths invoked and the recent sniper executions of eight policemen. Some Conservatives blame the Black Lives Matter Movement for fanning the fires of civil unrest. Wisconsin sheriff, David A. Clarke (an African American), declared at the Republican National Convention that, “Blue Lives Matter.” And every grudge, resentment, prejudice, ignorance, arrogance, and fear continues to mount and separate us…. Shhh! Peace! Be still!