Nigerian ancestors meet LGBTQ love in 'The High Table'
Diversionary Theatre's new production of "The High Table" is the American premiere of the 2020 play by British playwright Temi Wilkey. The play follows an engaged LGBTQ couple, Tara and Leah, who face rejection from Tara's Nigerian parents, and their ancestors, "suspended in the stars," are deciding the fate of the wedding. Director Niyi Coker Jr. and actor Andréa Agosto, who plays Tara, joined KPBS Midday Edition to discuss the play and the Diversionary production.
"The High Table" opens Feb. 18 and runs through March 5 at Diversionary Theatre.
Andréa let's start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about this play?
Agosto: "The High Table" focuses on Tara and Leah. Tara is engaged to Leah. They're about to get married. They're super excited and then comes, of course, meeting the parents, which as we know can go one of a few ways. Meanwhile as she introduces her fiancée to her parents, her ancestors are watching and deciding if they should bless this wedding and this union. It's a lot of fun but there's also a lot of really tender, heartfelt moments.
There are moments that are going to make you smile, moments that are going to make you think, and moments that are just going to really make you smile just because there's so much love in this particular piece.
There's love between the family members, even though they show it maybe differently. It's all about understanding and trying to learn each other's love languages and trying to figure out why people are doing things the way that they are doing them. Because if they're doing it from a place of love, you think that might be good, but you also have to understand when you love somebody you also have to continue to put their needs in mind as well.
Can you explain the title for us?
Agosto: "The High Table" refers to a Nigerian wedding tradition where the newlyweds and their families, such as their parents, are seated at a table that's typically on a stage or raised platform, so it's slightly elevated or higher than the rest of the tables.
Niyi, how else does this play approach Nigerian culture?
Coker: In this circumstance we're looking at an ancestral intervention, because in the traditional African context, the ancestors are actually part and parcel of your spiritual connection to the cosmos. So your ancestors are great grandparents or grandparents or parents who passed on. Never use the word "die." You know, they've passed on to the next realm. And in that next realm, you depend on your ancestors to intervene for you with the deities and the almighty, the creator, the supreme being. And it's not he or she. So in that sense and in that depth, the play carries a lot of weight and actually explores historical context and the existence of the people pre-invasion, so to speak.
Andréa, can you tell us a little bit about how the ancestors are involved with your character? And what is Tara's relationship with them?
Agosto: The ancestors are summoned as I bring my fiancée over and they are trying to divine and understand and hear things, but they also complain that they can't hear as well as they used to, they can't hear Earth or "Aiye" as it is referred to on the show as well as they used to because it used to be that the descendants used to call upon the dead and call upon their ancestors, and when they would do that, they would seek their counsel, seek their guidance and seek their support. Now, we're at a place in the 2020s where we're not talking to our ancestors. We're not going into that connection with them. So because of that they can't really understand what's going on and they are guessing at first to try to figure out what's happening with me and my fiancée. When they finally find out then it becomes a struggle between the ancestors. But they are still trying to intervene on her behalf and try to do what they think is best for her. I mean, that's what family does. And they don't always talk directly to her because, again very similar to family, they try to do what's best for you without necessarily having to involve you in their decisions, which I also find very interesting.
In addition to this cultural, this ancestral context, I imagine that LGBTQ+ love is sometimes hard to reconcile by an older generation with traditional values. Niyi, can you tell us about how that unfolds in the play — particularly with the way it's handled across generations, with the father's generation for example.
Coker: Yeah with the father's generation — the father's generation is one that's essentially been colonized. He's a doctor who lives in San Diego, belongs to a church community. Of course everybody goes, in those prayer communities, to the book of Leviticus and talks about how, "It's forbidden, it's a taboo. It's abomination," etc., etc. So the characters have to wrestle with that and they have to wrestle with that in the context of, "I want the best for my child and in wanting the best for my child, I have to face this conflict." But it's done in a very light-hearted, comic way. People listen more or adhere more to laughter and being able to lighten serious situations, and go home and actually really think about what they've just watched.
And the younger generation, they're still drawn to their culture. These characters still celebrate their culture despite the elders rejecting them, and they still love their families and those elders. Andréa, can you talk a little bit about that and how these characters find balance?
Agosto: When it when it comes to any kind of cultural journey, it starts by realizing your disconnection, and I think that ends up happening specifically for Tara in the play because of something that happened. She has to examine her connection, not only just to her culture, but what does that really mean, in terms of her family? How much has she been kept from? How much has been hidden away because of either fear or shame? And because she does not want to live in a place of fear or shame, she gets to the point where she wants to reconnect and reaches out to her ancestors and calls upon them and asks them to intervene. And that's kind of similar to a lot of people — something will happen in our lives that will force us to reevaluate our morals, our desires, our dreams and our hopes and we've got — a kind of life-defining, personhood-defining decision to make.
Andréa, I wanted to ask you what drew you to the script, and in particular this role?
Agosto: When I read this script, I cried. I could not put it down. I devoured it in one night, and I had to stop and reevaluate: What is it that is doing this to me? Why am I feeling this way? And I realized it's because I feel like in my own personal life, maybe I also am looking to reconnect with ancestry in some type of way. I've actually started doing my own genealogy and studying my own family tree to find out even more about my particular family and my family's history. To see it done in this way, where everything connects and culminates for this person, for Tara, I think is beautiful. And I think it also just inspires me and gives me hope that I will be able to find these connections that I am myself looking for. And I think that another part of it is the fact that there's queer ancestry mentioned in this piece and it's something that we don't hear about, especially being Black especially being Afro Latina. You don't hear a lot about that kind of ancestry within your family a lot of times. The only people that I've known, especially now as an adult, are the people in my generation my age range, but we don't — and I know that they existed, but that history is just not recorded or it's just not talked about. And to talk about something that is not talked about — the love that dare not say its name, I remember it being called growing up — it's a beautiful thing. That is a way to live loudly, it is a way to live bravely and it is a way to make sure that your connection to your culture and your ancestry is authentic because you are living in your fullest self.
And Niyi, how about you? What drew you to the script?
Coker: I was fortunate enough to have been invited to read the script and look at it as the possibility of something I may want to direct. And I would say on the first night, actually, of reading the first draft, I just thought, "Whoa, this is a loaded script," and I most definitely would do any and everything to want to work on this script, on this production. On another level, I have been a very strong critic and advocate against the brutalization, the senseless arrests of LGBTQ people in Africa. There's so much hate around the world. And I mean, if people find love where they find love, who are we to basically tell people who they are to love and why they are to love? And we should just be happy that people are happy. And that really touches a nerve because it makes people really think again, and allows people to explore the damage that colonization and mis-education and just religions that have come from foreign lands have imposed on a culture and a custom that was otherwise just didn't have any of these hierarchies or any kind of sexual discrimination assigned to it. This is really groundbreaking.