The Gabriels, or how US election played out for one family, and the team behind observational drama set for Hong Kong Arts Festival
Hong Kong audiences are invited to listen in on the intimate human, everyday conversations of a fictional struggling middle class family in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election in three insightful plays by Richard Nelson
Like many other American families on election night 2016, the Gabriels were sitting around the dinner table, cooking, chatting, worrying, and anxiously waiting for the results. The only difference is that the Gabriels, who live in the town of Rhinebeck in New York state, are a fictional family created by playwright Richard Nelson.
Women of a Certain Age, the final part of a trilogy about a struggling middle class family, took place in real time as the election unfolded, and Nelson was updating the lines until 4.30pm on November 8 to take account of goings on in the real world.
The play, and its other parts, Hungry and What Did You Expect, was performed at The Public Theatre in Manhattan. They will be staged from February 22 to February 26 as part of the 2017 Hong Kong Arts Festival.
The Gabriels’ conversation reflects the table talk of many other families in New York – because the family think that Hillary Clinton is easily going to beat Donald Trump in the race for the White House.
“Our characters thought that Clinton was going to win,” says Jay Sanders, who plays George, the Gabriel family’s sole male member.
“It seemed obvious at that time that she would become president. We discuss what she will do as president, and whether we think she will be able to achieve what she says she can.” The play, and the performance, ended before the election results were in.
The Gabriels don’t talk about politics all the time – far from it. As with most conversations, politics features amid discussions about other issues, weaving its way in and out of the broader fabric of the family’s concerns.
Personal issues are more important to them – the Gabriels are running out of money, and need cash to care for their ageing mother. Although they’re interested in politics, their personal problems are at the front of their minds, and the day’s political issues are discussed mainly in passing.
Nelson first took this conversational approach to current affairs in a quartet of plays (between 2010 and 2013) about another family, the Apples, which was also set in Rhinebeck, where the playwright lives.
“Richard [Nelson] said he wanted to show people talking about politics the way they do in real life,” says Sanders, a Shakespearean actor who also performed as one of the Apple family.
“It’s the kind of thing you hear while you are with your family, or overhear when you’re on a train, or in a restaurant. A couple of the characters were politically engaged in the Apple plays, so that brought politics into the house in a different way.
“But politics is not the main thing for the Gabriels, as they have personal issues to think about.”
Nelson, an accomplished playwright, says that he was asked to write an epic political play, but was more interested in an observational drama. “The idea was to put the conversations that I would hear in my own home, or on the train, on the stage,” he says, noting that the way ordinary people talk about elections is rarely covered by the pundit-obsessed US media.
“I wasn’t hearing these kinds of conversations on television, and I felt they were missing. I thought I could maybe add to the overall picture,” he says.
“I see people having all sorts of things entwined. Their family relations, their social relations, their friendships, their financial relations, and their political relations, are all interconnected,” Nelson says. “If I just focused on one of these aspects, it would take the humanity out of it. But when all these things become entwined, the human aspect appears.”
The Gabriels touched a nerve with US audiences, as their struggles reflect those of the middle class, a group which has been trying to make ends meet since the Great Recession.
“The Gabriels are living on the edge economically. They have to find as many different ways of making money as they can,” says Sanders. “In the play, we are a northeastern, liberal, Democratic household. We are hard-working, well-educated, capable people whose family have survived for generations.
“But now the country is changing, and we find ourselves living on the edge. Things are coming apart at the seams, and we may lose our house. Society doesn’t add up for us any more, and there is no one looking out for us. We are struggling.”
Sanders notes that although the Gabriels are staunch Democrats, they are just the kind of disillusioned people that people say would have voted for Trump. They reflect voters who feel that mainstream US politics has done very little for them.
“The Gabriels themselves were never going to vote for Trump, but that feeling of, ‘What about us, who is going to take care of us?’ is certainly there in their family,” says Sanders. “These people are in no way racist, or homophobic, or any of those things, and George wants to fight against the right-wing surge in the country. But he is also fighting for the survival of his family. That, in a way brings the struggle of those in the country together.”
When the first play of the trilogy, Hungry, was performed in March, Trump was such an outsider, he hardly got a mention, notes Sanders: “Donald Trump was not being taken seriously as a candidate back then. His name was mentioned briefly in passing in the first scene and not again.”
The audience respond differently to the first play now, he adds. “There’s a scene where Hannah, George’s first wife, turns to me while she is talking about politics and says, ‘Don’t you think that something bad is about to happen?’ The audience gasp. They know this was written back in February and March, before Trump was even on the radar.”
Nelson says that he did worry that the plays might become irrelevant after the election, but that has not happened.
“After the election, the audience seem to feel an even deeper emotional connection to the Gabriels. We see a family that has grown up in this town, and they are feeling under threat. They are losing, they are being forgotten, they are being pushed out,” the playwright says.
“Before the election, people could understand the anxiety and the fear of the family. But there was also the feeling that things would work out in a certain way, so the fear was not immediate in nature. After the election, people feel a deeper sympathy for them.”
“One of the great things about theatre is that it’s live – it’s live human beings in front of other live human beings,” adds Nelson.
“You get a kind of conversation between the people on the stage and the people in the audience. The audience recognise these people. They hear their fears and their anxieties discussed and expressed. They realise they are not alone.”
The Gabriels trilogy, February 22-26, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Studio Theatre. Tickets HK$280 and HK$400. Inquiries: 2824 2430