Grandpa’s World War II Secret

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, war, WWII

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Roberta receives a series of letters from Elfriede, a woman in Germany who claimed to be her sister. Roberta’s dad, it appears, fathered her while in a relationship there with a woman at the end of World War II. The wealthy African American Roberta, stunned, invites the woman, who has mental troubles, and her grown son to visit her in America to talk about their now deceased dad. Roberta was showing the woman around New York when she suffered a stroke, was hospitalized and put into an induced coma. The German sister, her son and Roberta’s grown children crammed themselves into the hospital room to see what would happen, all grief stricken in different ways.

That is where War, an intriguing new drama by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins at New York’s Lincoln Center, starts. The war in the play, which opened at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center last night, is not limited to the conflict between the allied forces and the Nazis in the 1940s, though. There is a war going on between the German woman’s aggressive, tough, bearded grown son, Tobias, and the whole rest of the world. Another war is brewing between Roberta’s two spoiled children, the GI’s grandchildren, Joanne, married to a white man, and Tate, who just split with his gay boyfriend. The siblings are at each other’s throats throughout the entire play, yelling, screaming and waving their arms in the air.

War is a moving story about what happened to so many thousands of GIs who fell in love with women in Germany, and later Japan, and in allied nations, in the World War II era (and in Vietnam later). Many of their kids were persecuted and did not grow up normal and some of their wives and girlfriends never saw them again. Their home countries did not understand them and the countries where their girlfriends lived did not want them around. They left a lot of love, and a huge mess, behind them.

Jenkins’ War story is far more complex, though. In it, through dreams in Roberta’s coma, he tells a story in which the World War II GI talks endlessly about racism in Munich, where he was stationed, and constantly referred to it as “Monkeytown” because of discrimination against him and other black troops. The racism returns in 2016 in the tirades of his grandson Tate, who argues that many African Americans are mixed race people, but lumped together by whites as just “blacks” (President Obama is his favorite mixed race example) and mercilessly hounded.

There are numerous family battles. Roberta, so touched by the existence of her sister, wants to give the woman half of her family’s fortune, but others see Elfriede, who barely speaks English, as a gold digger. Elfriede’s son Tobias blurts out that he and his mom are practically broke and need help. That seems to be their reason for coming to America.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz starts War off oddly. A very real Roberta emerges from the comatose Roberta and tells her father’s World War II story of love and race in a very strange Act One. The stage is darkened from time to time and the hospital nurse, a huge guy played well by Lance Coadie Williams, gets on all fours to imitate the “monkeys” that the GI wrote about in his racial complaints. Roberta drifts through the hospital as if on a conveyor belt. It is hard to make out the actors and even harder to figure out the plot. You sort of see where the show is going, but not quite.

Act Two, though, begins majestically with a wide awake Roberta sitting down and talking directly to the audience. Act Two is staged entirely differently than Act One and in it the pace of the play picks up dramatically and the character depth and richness is brought to life by a group of highly skilled actors.

The play is about war but it is about an angry and dysfunctional family, too. Roberta’s kids, with all the advantages, argue non-stop and seem disgusted with how their lives have turned out. They are angry that their grandfather sired a second child, angry that Elfriede stayed hidden all those years and that her son is so belligerent. All of these folks from Germany have intruded on their happy American home, that was not so happy after all.

One major historical complaint I have is that playwright Jacob-Jenkins did not do enough on the theme of children left behind by American GIs in World War II. He probably assumes that everybody knows the often told sad tale, but that is not so. Many young people today know little about the story, even though it has been the centerpiece of plays and numerous movies. If someone had just turned to the audience and spent a minute telling the story, it would have added a wonderful backdrop to the plot.

The super cast of actors is headed up by the gifted Charlayne Woodard as Roberta. She is dazzling. Other fine work is by Chris Myers as Tate, Rachel Nicks as Joanne, Reggie Gowland as her white husband Malcom, Michele Shay as Elfriede and Austin Durant as Tobias.

Director Blain-Cruz did a fine job of presenting the story, despite the awkward staging of Act One.

War is another fine story about the love affairs of American soldiers in World War II, in any conflict, and the tangled lives they left behind.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Lincoln Center 3’s New Artists/New Audiences and the Steinberg New Works Program at Lincoln Center. Sets: Mimi Lien, Costumes: Montana Blanco, Lighting: Matt Frey, Sound: Bray Poor. The play is directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. The play runs through July 3.

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