Women’s Work: Mary Kathryn Nagle’s On the Far End and Morgan Gould’s Jennifer Who is Leaving

Issue Five: National Capital New Play Festival
Soyica Diggs Colbert
April 25, 2023
Soyica Diggs Colbert

Soyica Diggs Colbert is the Idol Family Professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts at Georgetown University. She is a winner of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the author of several books including award-winning, Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry. She has also held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Stanford University, Mellon Foundation, and the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University. Colbert’s essays have appeared in African American Review, Theatre Survey, Modern Drama, Boundary 2, South Atlantic Quarterly, Scholar and Feminist Online, and Theatre Topics as well as the The New York Times, Washington Post, Public Books, and American Theatre. She is an Associate Director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., has served as a Creative Content Producer for The Public Theatre’s audio play, shadow/land, and a curator for the exhibition “Art is Energy”: Lorraine Hansberry, World Builder at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Her research interests span the 19th-21st centuries, from Harriet Tubman to Beyoncé, and from poetics to performance.

Round House Theatre’s National Capital New Play Festival features two mainstage productions, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s On the Far End and Morgan Gould’s Jennifer Who is Leaving. Together the plays explore two different but related founding features of America: settler colonialism and patriarchy, respectively. In the spirit of new work development (a process the festival is known for), these plays provide fresh perspectives on our shared origins.

Mary Kathryn Nagle (Jean) in On the Far End at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

On the Far End engages in memory work to remind audiences of America’s broken promises to Native Americans. As I have written elsewhere, “memory work, as practices, rituals, and activities, actively engages with the past to reorient and take hold of history.” Nagle’s play recounts that the United States entered into treaties with sovereign Native American tribal nations to establish reservations. On the Far End focuses on the playwright’s mother-in-law, Ella Jean Hill Chaudhuri (played by the playwright, Nagle), a citizen of the Muscogee Nation — an indigenous tribe that suffered a brutal relocation from the Southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma. Known as the Trail of Tears, thousands of Native people died during the journey, and cultural traditions were lost with the violent migration from East to West. On the Far End traces that national history through Chaudhuri’s personal story and, in so doing, details a cascade of US betrayals.

In the one-woman show with a minimalist set design by Paige Hathaway and direction by Margot Bordelon, Chaudhuri recalls that as a child, her sister died of tuberculosis, a treatable disease, because of inadequate access to healthcare. This loss is exacerbated by the family’s inability to access the roots that they would use to treat illness before their forced relocation. Three other siblings die of TB as well. The healthcare battle, however, does not end there. The audience travels back and through Chaudhuri’s memory as Hathaway’s set remains the same. We arrive many years later with an adult Chaudhuri in Arizona and realize that Native Americans still do not have access to healthcare even though the federal appropriations count Native Americans to apportion spending. Aware of the ongoing and life-threatening theft of resources, Chaudhuri organizes and forces the state to open a clinic for Native Americans. The memory of her siblings and the loss of communal practices inspires her work in the present.

Mary Kathryn Nagle (Jean) in On the Far End at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Other hauntings propel our protagonist, Chaudhuri toward educational equity and legal protections. As a child, Chaudhuri is sent to a boarding school and a teacher breaks her arm for speaking her native language. Listening to Nagle’s matter-of-fact recounting of the physical brutality sent a chill across the audience, only deepened by it being one of several acts of violence detailed in the play. Chaudhuri runs away from the boarding school several times before she finally escapes. While Chaudhuri does not live to see the 2020 Supreme Court decision that inspires the name of the play, Nagle takes up her labor and memory work, to remind the audience, as Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch writes in the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision “on the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise.” On the Far End seeks to fulfill that promise in ways that a court never could. 

On the Far End and Morgan Gould’s Jennifer Who is Leaving both fill the gaping holes of loss with embodied action. Set at Dunkin’ Donuts, during the night shift and in the middle of a snowstorm, Gould’s dark comedy makes palpable the layering of women’s domestic and professional labor.

Kimberly Gilbert (Jennifer) and Floyd King (Joey) in Jennifer Who Is Leaving at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The play features four characters: Nan, a night shift manager, mother, and wife (Nancy Robinette), Lili, a high school student working at Dunkin Donuts to pay for expenses related to applying for college (Annie Fang), Jennifer, a healthcare aide, mother, and wife (Kimberly Gilbert), and Joey, Jennifer’s elderly client (Floyd King). 

When the play opens, Jennifer and Joey appear stranded at the Dunkin’ Donuts and await a tow truck. As they wait, Joey repeatedly clamors for Jennifer’s attention and care. He exclaims, “I’m bored,” demands food, and requires assistance in the bathroom. All the while, Nan rushes around the store preparing donuts and coffee, taking her husband’s repeated telephone calls for assistance, and cleaning. Expressing the atmosphere of the play (also with scenic design by Hathaway), Nan says, “Everything is always dirty. Nothing is ever clean.” Besides the messes that Joey made, the Nan offended cleaned clean floors, counters, and windows. The compulsive activity compiled the feeling of futility. Lili appears periodically to voice her teenage angst about the college application process, and Nan characteristically offers support. Instead of requiring Lili to do her job, she tells her to go study in the back.

Annie Fang (Lili) and Nancy Robinette (Nan) in Jennifer Who Is Leaving at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

It is clear that at home and work, Nan plays the consummate attendant. As tensions rise, she broadcasts Whitney Houston’s song, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” to produce an impromptu dance break that eventually draws all four characters into a moment of joy. A temporary salve that staves off Nan and Jennifer’s overwhelming exhaustion. 

Ultimately, however, the laughter and dancing cannot relieve the pressure of simultaneously working in and outside of the home all the time. At one point Jennifer shares that in her 20+ years of marriage, her husband has never made dinner. A minor task perhaps, but the point of Gould’s play is to enumerate the cumulative impact of decades of uncompensated daily labor, which it achieves through repetition and soul-crushing jokes.  

Economic demands meet care work and cause Jennifer to explode. She reveals that their car has actually not broken down and that she purposely drove past their exit in an attempt to escape from her life. In a radical act of refusal, she leaves. Ultimately, refusal is a remedy for these women trying to upend the mess of patriarchy.

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