The following is a transcript of Jared’s audio reflection.
I like theater that puts me on the spot. I felt the first inklings of that when I sat down for Jennifer, Who is Leaving, part of the second annual Capital New Play Festival at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland. Morgan Gould’s play takes place in a roadside Dunkin’ Donuts—or Dunkin’, as they’re called now. The set, designed by Paige Hathaway, was just real enough to make me feel like I was cheating on a diet just by being there. Dramaturg Lauren Halverson’s program notes clued me in on what else was in store: an exploration of the invisible labor women shoulder in their personal and professional lives. It chimed with a subject my girlfriend and I have discussed under the term “mental load”: the work she so often does to identify, catalog, and direct the tasks that keep our personal life afloat. As I’m learning, being available to help with that work isn’t enough to have an equal partnership: I need to do some of the thinking, too.
Evidently, thinking does not come easy to the men in the world of Jennifer, Who is Leaving. As if working the nightshift wasn’t stressful enough, Nan (played by Nancy Robinette) has to field calls about every little domestic chore from her recently retired husband. Kimberly Gilbert’s Jennifer, meanwhile, is a professional caregiver for a supremely entitled and obnoxious elderly man named Joey, played by Floyd King. At first, the two seem to bear their burdens very differently: in Robinette’s excellent hands, Nan is good-tempered, good-natured, and often downright fun. Jennifer, meanwhile, is holding something back. After an hour of wrestling, Gilbert lets her secret out in a devastating rush.
An especially pointed critique comes courtesy of the fourth character, a stressed-out teen named Lili, played by Annie Fang. To be honest, it was not entirely clear to me what purpose Lili served in the story until she stepped out of the action to deliver a remarkable monologue on the weight a woman often carries even in a happy relationship. The man in Lili’s story is clearly appreciative of the work his partner puts in and has the kind words to show it. Those words, however, seem to string his partner further along an exhausting path. You can see echoes of the same dynamic in Nan’s repartee with her husband; for all the stress he puts her under, he can still make her blush. It’s one of the finer shades Robinette brings to Nan, but it’s also a reminder that, for all the ways women are still marked as the great manipulators, men are more than capable of plucking a heartstring to get what they want.
Work in all its forms is also a key feature in On the Far End, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s one-woman show, which is running in repertory with Jennifer, Who Is Leaving. I went into this one with more information, having interviewed Nagle and her husband, Jonodev Chaudhuri, about Chaudhuri’s mother, Jean, the Muscogee activist depicted in the play. One of the key subjects Chaudhuri kept coming back to was the need to maintain your activism behind the scenes, away from the glare of social media. While Jean won an award or two for her public service, they came after campaigning tirelessly for Native rights, not to mention facing the challenges of raising two children amidst waves of prejudice, including against her marriage to a Bengali man.
With On the Far End, Nagle not only got to know the mother-in-law she never met but, thanks to a last-minute casting change, embody her as well. Largely at ease in the role and guided by Margot Bordelon’s careful direction, Nagle takes us through Jean’s upbringing at the feet of her elders, her frequent escapes from the kind of boarding schools that forcibly assimilated Native children, and the ups and downs of her life and advocacy. Two of the key events center on victories against the odds: the establishment of a Native-serving health clinic in urban Tucson and the transformation of a former boarding school in Phoenix into public lands. It’s hard to imagine Jean’s tireless efforts not chiming with Nagle, who, in addition to being a playwright, is a highly regarded attorney working in the small but dedicated corps of Native lawyers. Nagle’s not only telling a story of Native women’s enduring labor; she’s placing herself into the same lineage.
Like Nagle, Gould is doing double duty on Jennifer, Who Is Leaving, in this case as playwright and director. Seeing what the pair of them have created is convicting, in a sense—they make it look so easy! Why can’t I do it like that? More importantly, they center humble but necessary work—the kind so often shunted into the background or distributed to those who are already overburdened—in a way that makes me want to do better.