Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Wages “War”

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Charlayne Woodard, Rachel Nicks, Michele Shay and Chris Myers in Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' War, directed by Liliana Blain-Cruz, at the Claire Tow Theater. Photo: Erin Baiano.

During the second act of War, hot-as-a-pistol playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has Tate (Chris Myers) — who is uncomfortable being described as “African-American” — relentlessly attacking Malcolm (Reggie Gowland), his sister’s white husband. He insists that Joanne (Rachel Nicks) married Malcolm solely because she’s self-hating. It’s an ugly outburst (some in the audience, in the context of the play, might call it uncalled for), and it’s part of a trend on New York stages. As in Gretchen Law’s work about Dick Gregory, Turn Me Loose, and as in the Stew-Heidi Rodewald musical The Total Bent, a Black man rails against dominating white society.

Coincident with, but not as a result of, the present racist Presidential campaign, playwrights are giving Black characters the liberty to declare long-suppressed resentments to white characters. Whereas earlier plays, such as August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, depicted frustrated Blacks turning on each other, contemporary playwrights are expressing those feelings differently — in other words, directly. It’s a reflection of what’s allowable on stage and off nowadays, it’s long-delayed and it’s refreshing in these still-early years of the 21st century.

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Tate’s offense is nonetheless a stunning development in an extremely complicated play. So is the defense mounted by Joanne and Malcolm, who are both taken off guard. As with such fiery debates, no side gains an upper hand in War — which can be a sign of deft writing, and is here. While the confrontation builds, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps the audience rapt.

He does as much during other sequences of the play, too, but somehow, due to the manner in which he constructs the wide-ranging War, it isn’t constant. The war to which he refers by inference really should be plural. Jacobs-Jenkins means family wars, civil-rights wars. And, more literally, World War II.

How does The Good War figure into this? The action starts when Joanne, Tate and eventually Malcolm gather at the hospital bed of their mother, Roberta (Charlayne Woodard), in an induced coma following a stroke. (Mimi Lien designed the appropriately antiseptic all-white set.) Also at bedside is Elfriede (Michele Shay), who was with Roberta when she suffered the stroke.

Elfriede speaks little English, so it isn’t until her son, Tobias (Austin Durant), arrives that we learn that Elfriede is Roberta’s half-sister, born when their father was a G.I. in Europe. Roberta and Elfriede had corresponded for some time, and Roberta promised to split money left by their father. Tobias expects Joanne and Tate to make good on the promise because he needs it right away — in large part to deal with the mental deterioration that Elfriede inherited from her deceased father.

But it’s not a promise that Tate sees as necessary to honor, and it’s not one that Tobias, who is disposed to fly off the handle, sees as necessary to let lapse. The conflict continues into the second act when the proceedings shift to Roberta’s apartment, where Tate is staying while alternating hospital watches with Joanne. What he doesn’t want is to share the flat with the occasionally confused Elfriede. His agitation is what leads to that inflammatory lashing out at Joanne and Malcolm.

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While the playwright fits all this into place, Roberta doesn’t simply lie restrained in her bed, surrounded by buzzing apparatus. Towards the end of act one, she suddenly appears from stage left and crosses the stage, slowly. Alternately lucid and perplexed, she hallucinates talking to the other actors, who are now on all fours, as monkeys.

It’s a weird development and it throws the audience. But Jacobs-Jenkins waits until the second act to sit Roberta in a club chair and have her report, in a long, demanding monologue, that when her father was assigned to a small European village during the war, the townsfolk, never seeing a Black man before, assailed him with monkey sounds. So he called the locale Monkeytown.

Roberta, in her coma, imagines this disturbing scene as Jacobs-Jenkins requires six of the seven actors to enact the scenes from Monkeytown, and to mixed effect: It dramatizes the hideousness of racism in a specific historical context, and it risks reviling current audiences.

Although Jacobs-Jenkins calls the work War, he also clearly longs to introduce a modicum of peace. This is an admirable wish. He provides it, too. But perhaps without entirely substantiating it.

Throughout the play, Elfriede and Tobias converse with each other in German. (Deborah Hecht is the dialect coach.) At one point Elfriede, who is only occasionally comprehensible to the non-German-speaking characters, asks Tate for a piece of paper and something with which to write. He obliges, if reluctantly, and that’s that for the moment.

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Later, at a crucial turn after Roberta’s precarious status is resolved, Elfriede reveals that she composed an essay (in near-perfect…English?) that she wants to read. The content (no spoiler here) accomplishes Jacobs-Jenkins’ conciliatory goal. Whether audiences will fall for it remains questionable.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz — busy recently with Red Speedo at New York Theatre Workshop and the curiously punctuated Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again at Soho Rep — works admirably with the cast. Woodard, accustomed to performing vivifying monologues in her solo shows, gives life to lifeless Roberta. Myers’ volatile Tate is a scene-stealer in a role that threatens to alienate audience members irretrievably. Nicks and Gowland are thoroughly humane, as are Shay and Durant in three-dimensional, sympathetic roles. Lance Coadie Williams does double-duty as a tough-minded nurse and the leader of the monkey pack.