Family reunions are so handy for dramatic construction that I suspect they were invented, somewhere back in the mists of antiquity, by a playwright. Centuries of scholars have beaten their heads over the apparent absurdity of Aristotle defining anagnorisis— the recognition of
long-lost relatives— as an essential quality of tragic drama, but playwrights have always understood. Aeschylus featured estranged spouses and rebellious children, while Sophocles and Euripides were happy to follow his example. The audience knows Claudius is being duplicitous the minute he begs his nephew not to go back to Wittenberg, and the list of people whom Coriolanus would least like to see outside his tent before a battle surely includes his mother.
Four generations of African American women, you might expect, would have enough grievances and enemies in common to bond a little more substantively than Greek or Shakespearean royals, but Cheryl L. West’s Jar the Floor advises otherwise. West’s women naturally confront issues pertinent to women specifically, and to African American women in particular, but as generations are prone to disagree on issues, what they chiefly confront is each other, as a day that was meant only to be a celebration (it’s great-grandma’s 90th birthday) and a gathering for moral support (mom, a professor of African American studies, is waiting to hear if she’s gotten tenure) turns
into a day of confrontations, revelations, and, inevitably, reconciliations at the end.
Much of this is predictable, and not all of it is layered convincingly into a single event. (And you’d expect a much larger extended circle to gather for such a big occasion.) To mull over the play’s material after you’ve seen it is to realize that West, in going for the hot-button issues, leaves large sectors of the characters’ experience unmentioned; the play’s rich bustle and detail is full of blank spots. In a way, the need to make what happens onstage lively and engrossing pushes West to field the issues instead of dramatizing them, like a futilitarian juggler who tosses plates in the air for the joy of watching them crash.
These are the flaws of Jar the Floor, as of almost any play molded on the family-reunion pattern: A family reunion, by definition, is not a dramatic action; in terms of anagnorisis, the shock of finding out that there’s a lesbian or an abused child in your own clan ranks well below the discovery that your exiled brother has come home to murder your mother, or that you’ve brought a plague on the city you rule by committing incest and patricide. Behind the violence and scandal of family behavior, the Greeks saw large issues of justice and civic morality; we tend to see, in front of the scandals, psychological
issues of personal coping and blame.
On the other hand, we live in states where power is so complex and widely diffused that few individuals can affect its almost abstract workings, so that plays which do attempt a wider political perspective tend to ring hollow; finding a way to debate issues onstage without sacrificing the human drama is no easy task. West’s plays— Jar the Floor is the third to be seen in New York— reveal a fascination with family dynamics and the way wider social matters reshape them.
Before It Hits Home brought AIDS into a middle-class black household (which suffered from intergenerational tensions similar to those in Jar the Floor); Holiday Heart dealt with surrogate parenting and transvestism. Both had male protagonists and featured hair-raising, hostile confrontations between men; both were basically somber dramas weighed down by a slight tendency to sermonize.
But Jar the Floor has an all-female cast, and, although issue-laden, is virtually sermonless. Instead, it’s largely comic: West gets a wide range of grim and gentle laughs out of her colliding generations, and director Marion McClinton’s jovially resplendent cast catches them all, adding what I imagine is a largish number of their own. And West’s humor has the authentic familial quality, one of the hardest things to achieve in comic writing: Instead of agendas and tantrums, it’s based on the casual remark, pricking a familiar sore point, that’s quickly resented and as quickly forgiven. Families and circles of friends live in a thorny nest of such remarks. This is normal; the scary families are the silent ones, in which resentments are never aired. Part of the difficulty of integrating West’s issues to her
drama lies in their being, with one or two big exceptions, symptoms of an everyday conflict rather than causes of a large, extraordinary one.
Who needs issues, though? You can see them hashed out on a hundred talk shows; the stage is about life. In the course of matching issues to speakers, West has invented five thoroughly vivid female people, and the cast seizes on her inventions with the alacrity of New Yorkers coming home from work and dashing to their air conditioners. The characters may snipe rather than bond, but the actresses seem to be going through a joyous experiment in communal living. Irma P. Hall is a barrel of concealed energy as the half-
senile great-grandmother; Welker White matches her in mischief as the brash Caucasian intruder. Regina Taylor, given the lugubrious task of playing the tenure-track role model, cunningly turns her presence outward while directing her emotions inward; this is how Hamlet might have behaved at the Boar’s Head Tavern. No wonder Linda Powell, as her troublemaking daughter, comes off meek and toned-down in comparison.
But then, everyone, even Taylor, seems a few tones down while Lynne Thigpen, as the glamorous grandmother, is taking center stage. Not that Thigpen ever does anything so banal as take center stage; it seems to come to her, like an obedient pet. Her approach to a role is like that of certain Baptist sects: total immersion: She is so completely involved in her action that everything she does or says seems both instantaneous and gigantic. She never condescends to do anything that seems like making an effect, and I doubt that anyone of the hundreds who screamed with laughter at her remarks last week could duplicate one of her line readings. In a sense, they aren’t line readings, for the actress Lynne Thigpen is not visible onstage. Instead a woman named Lola is in her daughter’s living room going on with her life, quite naturally, and if there was any actor-craft involved in her creation, it has long since vanished. I’d exclaim, “Ars est celare artem,” but I’m sure that Lola would only make a rude retort, while Thigpen, if the remark were relayed to her, would reply that she wasn’t concealing anything, she had merely created Lola and let her rip. And then they say there are actresses in England. I wouldn’t know; I only live in the same city as— for instance— Uta Hagen, Kathleen Chalfant, and Lynne Thigpen. Maybe England has better weather, or fewer family conflicts; it couldn’t have better actresses.