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Jeff Augustin's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club explores multicultural and multigenerational existential dread
Eisa (Kara Walker), the biracial teen at the center of Jeff Augustin's world premiere The New Englanders at Manhattan Theatre Club, has very different relationships with her two middle-aged dads. Her conversations with Samuel (Patrick Breen), who's white, are warm but superficial. But there's a palpable intimacy between her and Aaron (Teagle F. Bougere), who's black. In the opening scene, as Aaron twists Eisa's hair before bed, they discuss an unnamed movie they've just seen featuring white people being silent and sorrowful. "Do we ever get to be sad?" Eisa asks, and he replies, "No. We can only to teach lessons on race and class. Be victims who overcome. We never get to just live."
That desire to "just live" is a driving force in The New Englanders, about six diverse and disillusioned characters who desperately want to shake things up. A senior in high school who idolizes Lauryn Hill, Eisa can't wait to escape her small town with its white picket fences and ice cream shops, but a conflict with her unyielding English teacher (Crystal Finn) threatens to derail her plans. Meanwhile, her dads' marriage is in jeopardy as Aaron is drawn to an old love (Javier Muñoz), while Samuel pours his heart out to the teenage pot dealer at Chuck E. Cheese (Adam Langdon) about how life is passing him by.
As a native New Englander, I watched the play with a combination of glee, squirm and recognition due to how accurately it captures the region's suffocating vibe. "I had been wanting to write about New England for a while," says Augustin. "How the land informs who we are and how we speak. That's where the germ of the play started for me."
A gay Haitian American who grew up in Miami, Augustin recalls reading a crime novel in fifth grade about a cardiologist attending school in Boston. "The city and, by extension, New England felt not only like a liberal mecca where I could freely explore my identity, but the realization of the American Dream," he says. Although he set his sights on Boston University, Boston College offered him more financial aid, not that he has any regrets. "I wanted to get the hell out of Florida, and I liked Boston Public," he says with a laugh.
He planned to double major in political science and economics, but a high school teacher who admired Augustin's spoken word work suggested he explore theatre at college. So Augustin enrolled in a class called Dramatic Structure and Theatrical Process. "The professor Scott Cummings changed my life," says Augustin, recalling how the instructor checked in with him to see how he was adjusting to such a white environment. The New Englanders is dedicated to Cummings, "who made me feel seen in New England."
Augustin -- who made his New York debut four years ago with Little Children Dream of God at Roundabout Underground -- insists he wouldn't have pursued playwrighting if it weren't for Cummings. "He opened my eyes to the greater scope of American theatre, and I sat in his office and he helped me find my voice and pushed me," he says.
But as the youngest of seven, Augustin "felt the pressure of having to lift everyone up." So after graduating, he thought becoming a literary manager might be more practical. "You know, to bring in all the bucks!" he jokes. After internships at the Chicago's Goodman Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club, plus jobs at The Gap and as an agent's assistant, he enrolled in the MFA playwriting program at the University of California San Diego. He began The New Englanders during his final weeks of grad school.
"I was thinking about these transitional moments in life, and about the passive-aggressiveness of New England," he says, admitting he initially thought this would be his comedic love letter to the area. But while The New Englanders has many hilarious moments, it's a serious play about the destructive mistakes we make while trying to live our best lives.
"I was interested in how we can empathize with the worst versions of ourselves in our most tragic moments," Augustin says. "I am so risk-averse, so I was curious about what would happen when these characters let go. I was a straight-A student inspired by Lauryn Hill, and I had an English teacher who despised and respected me in this weird way. What would have happened if I'd called her out on her homophobia?"
Directed by Saheem Ali, The New Englanders is many things at once: a portrait of a family, an exploration of identity and a meditation on existential dread. Augustin is aware that some of the details, especially all the Lauryn Hill references, may fly over some theatregoers' heads, but he isn't worried. "When I write stories, my imagined audience is my mom and people who know who Lauryn Hill is," he says. "My job isn't to teach an audience who Lauryn Hill is; you can insert The Beatles. It's about a girl wanting to get out of town -- that's the emotional truth."
Top image: Kara Young, Teagle F. Bougere and Patrick Breen in The New Englanders. Photos by Joan Marcus.