“Words are sweet, but they never take the place of food.” So says an Igbo proverb, and so would agree the extended family in generations, debbie tucker green’s elliptical play built around a sustained metaphor of cooking.
At first glance, her intentions appear to receive a literal interpretation in the piece’s newest production (after premiering in London in 2007) from Soho Rep and The Play Company. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set transforms the downtown minimalism of Soho Rep’s home on Walker Street into a functioning South African township kitchen – dirt floor, stacks of plastic buckets and tubs, corrugated tin walls hung with bags of vegetables, rows of cookery and shelves of spices – around which the audience is seated on low stools and crates. As the play opens, Grandma (Thuli Dumakude) and Junior Sister (Khali Toi Bryant) are joyfully tending to a simmering pot on an electric burner.
But that is all the actual cooking that will take place once a pair of young lovers enters the kitchen. Boyfriend (Mamoudou Athie) has come to ask Girlfriend (Shyko Amos, back at Soho Rep after last season’s An Octoroon) for her hand in marriage. But since words can sting too, he does so using a thinly veiled question: can she cook?
Culinary skills might be the subject of the ensuing debate that is the play’s sole dialogue (“I can cook./But can she?/She can’t./She doesn’t cook./She won’t cook./I coached her to cook./Why doesn’t she cook?/Cos she can’t”). But language as signifier, in the sense of verbal jousting, soon grabs all our attention, as the characters’ ritualized taunts and boasts spiral upon themselves, wrapping in ever tighter circles, first around the young lovers, then the girl’s parents and finally the grandparents. Each new coiling reveals, with essentially the same phrases, but each time a new vocabulary of gestures and emphases, a different relationship, a different time, and a different life story.
Those stories form a single tale, which involves implicitly the AIDS epidemic in South Africa and which is green’s underlying theme. The performance begins with a call and response dirge remembering nearly 60 names, performed by a 13-member choir seated among the audience. This threnody (composed and arranged by Bongi Duma, of Broadway’s “The Lion King”) gains in intensity as the singers progressively call away the lovers, followed by the girl’s Mama (Ntombikhona Diamini) and Dad (Michael Rogers), leaving only the grandparents to lament “this dying thing…this unease, this disease.” In a country where, over the last decade, according to UNAIDS, a third of pregnant women are infected with HIV, and the disease is the leading cause of death of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 49, the burden of AIDS on the elderly is real.
This deceptively simple play, running just 30 minutes, is a tour de force of storytelling, at its most basic and essential: using an economy of music and language but also deep reserves of both wit and human compassion, it confronts its audience with the moral dilemmas of its day. Under Leah C. Gardiner’s vigilant direction, the fine cast rises to the task of delivering green’s looping text with sensitivity to its infinite nuances, gradually bringing the elderly couple’s pain and isolation into ever tighter focus, while the choir underscores their drama with mournful harmonies and thrilling percussive accents.
“Look how/look how sweet/how sweet the touch,” the Boyfriend remarks of his beloved before they must exit the warmth of the family kitchen and the lives they had dreamed together. Those sometimes sweet, sometimes salty, but infinitely meaningful words and gestures, convey in a symbolic shorthand the human cost of the AIDS epidemic. Green’s talent in generations is giving that spoken art and that African tragedy a place at the table.