The kitchen occupies the spiritual hearth of any home, no matter how palatial or modest. It’s where we assemble, by rite and by instinct, for sustenance and for succor. American playwrights often prefer to set dramas in the living room — a space that emphasizes and idealizes leisure — but the communal, labor-filled preparation of meals opens up another set of imaginative possibilities.
Generations, a short but evocative play by the British dramatist Debbie Tucker Green, invites the Soho Rep’s audience inside a spiritually charged domicile in a South African township. The evening meal simmers on the stove. We can smell it as
we wait for the performance to begin. The intimate performance space is warm and the air moist from the steam misting out of the pots and pans. Plastic bags hang on hooks along the walls: tomatoes, corn, carrots, and potatoes ready for chopping.
Family members hover around the counter and dining table in anticipation: a mother, a young girl, a grandmother. Perched on odd chairs, crates, benches, we sit watching them. Suddenly, via a coup de théâtre, we find ourselves in the midst of a 13-person South African choir singing a gentle dirge and beautifully calling out names of lost and lamented souls. As the cast members begin to speak to one another, we realize we aren’t just sitting in a kitchen. We’re also at the center point of overlapping circles — suspended between now and then, courtship and marriage, hunger and nourishment.
Fortunately, there’s no realism here to go with the kitchen sink. On one hand, Leah C. Gardiner’s expressive staging (a coproduction with the Play Company) immerses us in physical blight. Light-brown dirt covers the entire theater floor. Giant, brightly hued panels of corrugated tin line the walls. Against this socially specific setting, Green’s play proceeds through rhythmic conversation fragments that leap across time frames.
Grandma, for instance, recalls to Granddad: “I was the cooker — you was the cookless — I was the cooker who coached the cookless. I coached you to cook.” His reply: “You couldn’t cook.” In a nearly simultaneous dialogue, Dad recalls courting Mum because “I needed a meal; she looked well fed.” Meanwhile, Girlfriend reacts to Boyfriend when he tells her she looks like a promising cook. These conversations span many years and at least three generations — yet we’re still gathered in the kitchen, where everything converges. When speakers suddenly depart, leaving others to mourn, the drama’s scheme takes on new dimensions, becoming a kind of existential fugue.
Generations isn’t always easy to watch, even at 30 minutes. With speakers dispersed across the space, it can be hard to identify who in the room is speaking these fleeting sentences, and tracking the relationships requires concentration. That’s not necessarily a criticism — a heightened experience of watching is one reason you go to the theater. This challenging contrapuntal composition is buoyed by gifted performers, especially Thuli Dumakude and Jonathan Peck as the grandparents, who cap the play with an almost Beckettian reflection on “This dying thing. This unease. This dis-ease.”
Ultimately Green offers both a celebration and an elegy. When the evening concludes with the choir’s rendition of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” South Africa’s national anthem, we’re reminded of a nation that still awaits its meal two decades after the end of apartheid. Like the larger human family, this one renews its hopes with each generation while simultaneously watching them disappear.