It is difficult for a reviewer like me to write about a play that is steeped in a culture that is very different from my own. My tendency is to try to make sense of the culture being portrayed, though through the lens of the culture with which I’m familiar. Doing so is probably unfair on some level, but it’s all I’ve got.
‘Niyi Coker, Jr., the director of Temi Wilkey’s The High Table, making its American premiere at Diversionary Theatre, helped me some in his program essay (it also helps that he is a colleague at San Diego State University, though, so far, we have not met). Dr. Coker explained that Yoruba Africans, the subjects of The High Table, see individuals and the spirit world as co-existing in cyclical forms. These groups and interact with each other, though human understanding of these interactions is influenced by colonialism, which had a corrupting societal effect in terms of laws and customs. Dr. Coker also explained that he had re-set a portion of the play from London to San Diego, though I never quite figured out why he did so. My guess would be to highlight the plight of those who suddenly find themselves in an unfamiliar culture, but that’s only a guess.
While I can appreciate the cultural differences, in the end, such appreciation goes only so far. The High Table chronicles the frustrations of two contemporary women (Tara, played by Amdréa Agosto, and Leah, played by Taylor Henderson) who would like to get married but who find that their desires are hampered by the cultural backgrounds and beliefs of others. These young women are part of a tale told many times. Suddenly, the challenges the women face are part of a story that is very familiar to the audience, so familiar that it may be seem cliched. Homophobia rearing its head is ugly, no matter the context.
The spirits/ancestors who need to give their blessing before the wedding can go forward are played by San Diego veteran actors Monique Gaffney and Grandison Phelps. A side story, about how someone transitions from the living world to the spirit world, features Durwood Murray.
The production assists with understanding the play. Yi-Chien Lee’s scenic design both finds ways to designate playing spaces for both worlds and does so in a very utilitarian manner. It’s another winner for San Diego’s arguably busiest scenic designer. These spaces were lit effectively by designer Annelise Salazar. Kathie Taylor’s costume design contrasted street clothes for the female couple with what looked like choir robes for the spirits. Eliza Vedar’s sound design had to compete with two drummers (Juan Carlos Blanco and Angelica Cardona), who accompanied the action with a steady stream of percussive sounds. Alyssa Kane designed props, and Bibi Mama coached dialects.
Diversionary gives The High Table a worthy American premiere, despite the play’s somewhat veiled exploration of Yoruba culture.
Runs through March 5, performing Monday and Thursday at 7pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm. The run time is two and a half hours, including one intermission. Parking is difficult in University Heights. The theatre recommends arriving half and hour to 45 minutes prior to curtain time.