War takes place in a Washington, D.C., hospital, and later an apartment. Or maybe it takes place in a remote patch of wilderness inhabited by sensitive, highly articulate gorillas. Or maybe in the nightmarish depths of a
dying person’s mind. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s fascinating, meditative play is a family drama with existential scope, the story of a single clan that widens, in both subtle and ambitiously strange ways, to contemplate inheritance and belonging — not just to parents but to ancestors, racial identities, and the species as a whole. First presented at the Yale Repertory Theatre
in 2014, War is now making its New York premiere at LCT3 in a graceful production directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz.
The combat zone, initially, is recognizable family-drama turf. Joanne (Rachel Nicks) and Tate (Chris Myers) reunite in the hospital room where their mother, Roberta (Charlayne Woodard), is recovering from a stroke. Old antagonisms are already simmering: Tate resents Joanne for abandoning her law degree to get married (and to a white guy at that); Joanne had been struggling to patch things up with her mother before the stroke. But there’s little time for bickering, due to the inexplicable presence of German-speaking strangers in Roberta’s hospital room. Odder still, these interlopers — Elfriede (Michele Shay) and her grown son Tobias (Austin Durant) — claim to be relations: the results of an affair Roberta’s father had while stationed in Munich during World War II.
Such revelations would make any set of relatives (estranged, or total strangers) break out in hostilities. Tate and Joanne disagree about Roberta’s care; Elfriede, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, needs care herself; and Tobias, who’d been told that a share of the American family’s inheritance was on offer, reels at finding his benefactor incapacitated and her children unaware that he exists. These immediate sources of contention quickly grow seismic in scale as the relations consider the larger ways in which inheritances shape us: Tate confronts Joanne’s husband, Malcolm (Reggie Gowland), about Malcolm’s racial ignorance; Tobias, in turn, argues with Tate over the personal legacies of American imperialism.
As these disputes unfold, a parallel set of scenes explores other realities, other modes of consciousness and belonging. Roberta, in a comatose reverie, traverses the stage, struggling to remember who she is — in conversation with a pack of philosophically minded gorillas (played by the other performers, who morph into simian shapes in the dimness). The assiduous apes are figments of Roberta’s traumatized mind — or, maybe, our collective ancestors, calling out from beyond the grave. Set designer Mimi Lien brackets the stage with a white rectangular proscenium, like a picture frame, reminding us how radically reality shifts depending on what portion of it we can see.
Jacobs-Jenkins has emerged, in recent years, as one of the country’s most eloquent playwrights, reshaping both theatrical form and our collective conversation about race and identity. War — elegant and thoughtful — is at times more driven by concept than action (a coda at the D.C. zoo, toying with the play’s Darwinian undertones, feels more clever than theatrically necessary). But these are concepts that bear extended contemplation: the ways genetics shapes us without our knowledge or consent; the alternate forms of consciousness our bodies carry around. Jacobs-Jenkins orchestrates the battles but doesn’t settle the war — leaving us with lingering questions long after his
gorillas vanish in the mist.
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Claire Tow Theater
150 West 65th Street