The Young Man who narrates Edward P. Jones’ short story “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” dreams about moving to Alaska. There, escaped from his overly familiar hometown of Washington, D.C., he’ll find gold and women, and he’ll live exactly the way he wants to live, freed from familial ties and obligations. But Jones packs his dialogue with the details of local geography, the names of streets, intersections and stores. His character is defined not by psychological tics, but through his attachment and resistance to the place where he’s known.
The Word for Word production of the story addresses the importance of place visually with the set design. Several tall, brightly colored brownstones line the back of the stage. This is an African American neighborhood in the 1950s where people knew and looked after each other. The Young Man (Khary L. Moye), who is never given a name, has recently returned from military service in the Korean War. His mother (Velina Brown), sensing her son’s restlessness, sets the plot in motion.
One afternoon, she brings her sister, Aunt Penny (Margo Hall), and their best friend Miss Agatha (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) by his work in a law office on F Street. In one astonishing opening paragraph, Jones lays out several key subplots that he then weaves together effortlessly throughout the rest of the story. If you’ve never seen a Word for Word performance, they live in a liminal space between literature and theater. In this case, it’s easier to catch the complexity of his craft on the page but just as engaging to see these characters on the stage.
In a short story like “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” there are lengthy passages of exposition that can make for rough transitions to spoken drama. When, for instance, Aunt Penny comments on police indifference with, “If they are doin’ somethin’, they keepin’ it secret.” The actress playing her ends the sentence by adding out loud “Aunt Penny said.” At first, the inclusion of explanatory clauses numbs out the willing suspension of disbelief. And then, the fine work of the actors settles into a rhythm; they breathe life into the language of the brilliant short story.
Jones sets the plot in motion by introducing Miss Agatha not by her name but as “murdered Ike’s mother.” The three women have come to The Young Man for help because the (white) police department won’t. They want him to solve the murder of Miss Agatha’s son Ike. But The Young Man has other things on his mind, like a recent break up with a girlfriend he keeps trying to avoid. And he’s haunted by the last words of a white woman who died in front of him. He repeats her Hebrew words, which are unintelligible to him, like a mantra.
At the end of the story, we do find out what it was she was saying. Without giving away the meaning entirely, they were concerned with the art of storytelling. Jones, in the body of The Young Man, inherits this art. He tells his mother’s story, her flight from Alabama to D.C. He tells Miss Agatha’s story alongside that of her daughter-in-law, her granddaughter, and her murdered son. And he tells the dead white woman’s story whose identity later comes to light.
Jones takes several unrelated stories and then unites them on the page in order to reveal, unhurriedly, their unexpected connections which are ultimately, to a specific place and the people who live, care for and depend upon each other there. The call of all that Alaskan gold just can’t compare with the familiar streets of the known world.
All Aunt Hagar’s Children, through Dec. 11, at Z Space, 450 Florida St., 866-811-4111 or zspace.org.