American premiere ‘The High Table’ explores expectation and metamorphosis in service of love
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, February 28, 2023
The High Table, promoted as a “hilarious and heartfelt story of lineage and love,” has one weekend remaining at Hillcrest’s Diversionary Theatre, marking the close of the production’s American premiere.
Written by London playwright Temi Wilkey and directed by ‘Niyi Coker Jr., Diversionary’s newest offering is infused with tension surrounding cultural and societal pressures and the right to love. As the show begins, Tara (Andréa Agosto) and Leah (Taylor Renee Henderson) are planning their upcoming wedding, with one minor detail still to iron out: Tara hasn’t told her parents, Mosun (Monique Gaffney) and Segun (Grandison M. Phelps, III) that she is dating - much less engaged to - a woman. She is devastated at their denial as they carry their personal fears, prejudices, expectations and experiences forward, and refuse their blessing. Complicating things further, Segun has a brother, Teju (Durwood Murray) who, after years of pretending, has suddenly found himself being blackmailed by the Nigerian police for his sexuality. In the meantime, Tara’s ancestors Yetunde (Gaffney), Babatunde (Phelps), and Adebisi (Henderson) argue about whether or not they will bestow their blessing upon the marriage.
The High Table script itself is relatively formulaic and relies on a few tropes: the marriage itself cannot take place without familial blessing, which Tara’s parents (and ancestors) refuse to give, there’s an epic argument and breakup, and so on. What is special about this play, however, is the way that Wilkey has woven in the richness of African cosmology, while highlighting how that legacy is at odds with today’s world: one rife with the consequences of past and ongoing colonialism, bigotry, and violence. So too, does this script navigate themes of intersectionality, relational complexity, and closed-mindedness.
To tackle this work, Coker has pressed an intimate cast into service and, in spite of what must be a transitional challenge for scene changes, has doubled roles to tell this particular story. This choice is quite effective.
In particular, actor Monique Gaffney shines in her dual roles. As mother Mosun, she is terse and unapologetically determined to change her daughter from who she is to who mom believes she should be. “You’re my only one,” she insists. “Look how you repay me.” Her affect is cold and unwavering. In contrast, when Gaffney becomes ancestor Yetunde, it becomes clear that there is more than meets the eye. She is riveting and vibrant, dancing on stage, taking up space as the most senior member of the family, and, at long last, sharing the experiences of Yetunde’s own past in a fiery moment of unconstrained recall.
Other monologic moments shine throughout the show as well - Teju’s plea to his brother for help and Tara’s prayer to her ancestors are beautifully executed and compelling - creating an opportunity for each subplot to get tendrils into the story.
Another highlight of the production is the onstage percussion group which includes Juan Carlos Blanco and Angelica Cardona. Their energetic rhythmic heartbeat, both between scenes and occasionally to add depth within them, keeps the story moving during costume/character changes, and is a welcome addition.
While I was excited to see that the playwright agreed to relocate scenes from London to San Diego, I ultimately felt that the reason for this change was under-explored. The city itself is mentioned in the script multiple times, but there are a lack of location-specific elements that appear to call for a modification like this one, and I would love to have more context into what has prompted this change to the script.
However, while very few specific details in the script, set, or staging refer directly to the setting of the show, the transitions between the four venues (Tara and Leah’s living room, Mosun and Segun’s kitchen table, Teju’s home in Lagos, and the ancestral realm), are easy to follow thanks to a variety of lush textiles and clearly defined regions of the stage. These are marked by both furniture/set dressing pieces, as well as light/fog elements such as beams emanating out of the floor boards, an LED portal marking the entrance to the ancestral plane, and an array of sunset-inspired tones shifting across the back wall. These have been created in collaboration by Annelise Salazar (lighting design), Yi-Chien Lee (scenic design), and Dr. Teju Kareem (design and technology consultant).
Other members of the design and production team include Kian Kline Chilton (associate director), Kathi Taylor (costume designer), Eliza Vedar (sound designer), Alyssa Kane (props designer), Joy Demichelle (intimacy consultant), and Bailie Molsberry (stage manager and covid safety manager).
In The High Table, Diversionary has chosen a play that is not only a tribute to the role of our ancestors in shaping our destiny, but also concurrently a chilling warning of what hatred and judgment sow and a recognizable star-crossed love story.
The High Table runs through Mar. 5.