Wednesday, Jan. 23–Sunday, Feb. 10, $15+

PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill

In many extended families, a single person—usually an elder—is the nucleus around which the group coalesces. When that person dies, a crisis takes place in the family structure. Playwright Charly Evon Simpson has seen it in her own family; two years after her matrilineal grandfather died, she says, “We’re still figuring out what’s the balance here, and how do we relate on that side of the family without him.”

In Simpson’s new drama, Jump, whose world premiere begins this week at PlayMakers Repertory Company, a mother’s death from cancer provokes a similar crisis in a modern-day urban African-American family. The loss underscores the dysfunction and feelings of estrangement that have developed among its remaining members: sisters Fay and Judy, now young adults, and their unnamed father, who’s in his late fifties.

“You hope to be connected to your siblings and your parents, but sometimes, you’re not,” Simpson says. That’s certainly the case as we watch the sisters bristle and snipe in what at first seems like an endless relitigation of grievances dating back to high school. “I was a senior. You were a freshman,” older sister Judy flatly asserts at one point. “I didn’t have time to think or care about you.”

When the siblings learn that their father plans to sell their childhood home one year after their mother’s death, Judy could be referring to the house or the relationships among the survivors when she observes, “I guess none of us wanted to be here after she was gone.” 

But the act of cleaning out the house gives the trio the chance to declare an uneasy truce and assess what, if anything, is left between them. As Fay and Judy pack up keepsakes and discard the flotsam of the eighties in their childhood bedroom, they begin a conversation that tentatively bridges at least some of the divisions of the past.

But in these, and in Fay’s awkward exchanges with her father, there is a singular dearth of sentiment. In their conspicuously tearless reunions, no one ever hugs it out, and it is telling when a stage direction in the script notes, “There is no comforting of the other. They are on their own, comfort-wise.”

Simpson is quick to differentiate between Jump’s family and her own. Still, in her characters, she explores some of the difficulties she has noticed family members having over several generations in communicating with their parents. “We’re totally capable of communication, but it’s taken all of us a long time to find a vocabulary for it,” Simpson says. “It just took time and space and distance to figure out a way to communicate with each other.”

That plays out as well in the other relationship Simpson interweaves with this family’s potential rapprochement, as Fay and Hopkins, a local grad student, cautiously feel each other out in a series of encounters after an unlikely bit of initial bonding: over vintage Queen, on a nearby bridge. Much of the meet-cute evaporates in the subsequent mistrust between two strangers. And yet, something begins between them, something that persists even when one of them later admits to contemplating jumping off the bridge moments before meeting the other.

“When someone brings up having suicidal thoughts, the conversation stops, and we find it difficult to resituate ourselves back into a conversation after that,” Simpson says. “But there is a way to shoulder and honor that concern, and then not diminish the rest of a person’s life. We probably need room for a different way of listening, or an openness to hearing the ways in which individuals think  about and feel these things.”

“I feel I spend much of my adult life trying to find the people I can share myself with, and say the crazy thing, or the hard thing, to see who’s going to stay, who’s going to ask questions, who’s not going to freak out and blow it all out of proportion,” Simpson says. “Part of me is just interested in showing these sides of ourselves—they’re not even ugly, they’re just difficult, and harder to deal with—and figuring out if someone can be there with you.”

But suicide—now at a fifty-year high in the United States, as the tenth leading cause of death overall and the second among Americans under age thirty-five—unavoidably raises the stakes in such relationships. In Jump, Simpson ponders how we balance caring and worrying about the potentially suicidal with giving them space to express themselves rather than “trying to put a band-aid on.”

“Rescuing is great when you need it, but if that’s not what you’re looking for, it can be frustrating and patronizing,” Simpson says. “Sometimes, you’re saying, ‘I didn’t come to you to fix it. I came for you to listen. I came because I needed to release the thought, to say the words out loud. I came to hear you say I can’t fix it, but I’m here for you.’”

Many times we have to rescue ourselves, Simpson concludes. “What we’re looking for are the people who are going to be there, just to help support us on that road.”