Displacement is born in many ways. Immigrants who arrive in this country often with short travel notice after difficult, sometimes dangerous journeys live with one foot elsewhere. Assuming legal entry, assimilation has its own challenges. How much change is necessary, how much a matter of choice? Memories bind. Loved ones are left behind.
1979. Jean (Billy Eugene Jones) was a valued and fulfilled teacher in Haiti. Here, he finds work as a baggage handler at the Miami airport. “It’s a start. When I have money enough, I’ll enroll in community college to learn to teach.” A true romantic, Jean pines for a woman back home who “smelled of rosewater, cocoa, and baby powder,” planning their life together when she arrives. He regularly sends recorded letters making excuses for her lack of response. Southern folk music reminds him of home.
Abigail Bengson, Shaun Bengson, Chris Myers, Billy Eugene Jones
“My father died in Miami while I was falling in love with a married man in L.A.,” Joshua (Chris Myers) begins from the other side of the stage. “Carl is a ginger daddy, twenty years older and a novelist.” A young, gay, Black man secure in his skin, Joshua wears braids and shorts. He learns of Jean’s death and resolves to duplicate the cross country trip his parents took when his mother was pregnant; to pick up his father’s ashes and scatter them in Haiti. “I never liked folk music. I associate it with death.”
“The space that you occupied, did it go away when you died?” the Bengsons sing, he on guitar, she with brushes and a drum.
“The beach is ugly, the water murky, but life is plentiful,” Jean records. “For the first time in my life I have a car!…Every day I turn to the west where what I love best waits for me.” Jean dances in anticipation. He’s sinuous, happy. Joshua doesn’t drive. Carl won’t leave his husband so the determined traveler takes a train and downloads Grindr for company. (A dance-off in one town conscripts Shaun Bengson with loose-limbed exuberance.) In this way, he makes his way from west to east successfully partnering with strangers until he rather neatly falls in love.
Jean begins dates with a series of Haitian born women, one of whom becomes his wife and Joshua’s mother. The newlyweds share a love of mountain music and the desire to connect with their new home. “America is too big to be one country.”
Abigail Bengson, Shaun Bengson
“I was born so I could warm your bed. I’d like to have you hold me through the night, but I’m ugly in the light,” the Bengsons sing in deep harmony.
We go back and forth between the two stories and their respective liaisons never learning why Jonah only visited Joshua at Christmas. Nor, oddly, is there reference to communication between. Jean signs up for Instagram to get a glimpse of his son’s life. There were things left unsaid. Still, Joshua devotedly follows in his father’s footsteps. Only at the very end do the two occupy the stage together.
This is a lovely piece, but one can’t help but yearn for more about the filial relationship. Additionally Jean is a more fully developed character. We see multiple aspects of his personality while Jonah’s men reflect little of his.
Billy Eugene Jones imbues Jean with sweetness, sensitivity and lovely, child-like appreciation . The actor is sympathetic and credible.
Chris Myers has less to work with in terms of revelatory monologue. Perhaps this is the reason the actor appears slightly removed from events. Emotion lives on a genial surface.
Abigail and Shaun Bengson’s music signifies Jean’s attraction to a mountain/folk genre cited as similar to that of Haiti. (Alas Joshua has no such memory.) That both cross country trips occur down south is a second connection. Songs relate well enough without being specific and are evocatively performed on banjo, guitars, and reverb box adding additional background. Abigail’s (sometimes wordless) vocals with pronounced vibrato and slip/sliding octaves can be haunting.
Chris Myers, Billy Eugene Jones
Director Joshua Kahan Brody manages to give his two protagonists enough individual movement so that stories don’t become static. Dancing, different according to character, is particularly infectious. Integration of music is as deft as it can be considering the leads don’t participate until the very end. Pacing is just right.
Choreography by Steph Paul organically suits each character as if improvised.
A spare set of semi-circular, gradated, blonde wood steps and background mountains by Arnulfo Maldonado is attractively lit by Stacey Derosier
Photos by Matt Murphy
Opening: Shaun Bengson, Abigail Bengson, Billy Eugene Jones
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
Where the Mountain Meets the Sea by Jeff Augustin
Music by The Bengsons
Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody
City Center Stage I
131 West 55 St.
Through November 27, 2022