In 1985, just months before the birth of their son Jonah, a Haitian airport baggage handler named Jean takes his wife on a road trip across the United States. Setting off from Miami in Jean’s green Cadillac, they drive through the mountains of eastern Tennessee, visit Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon, and go all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Decades later, Jonah decides to follow that same route—only he’s going to do it in reverse, venturing east from Los Angeles. After his father’s death, Jonah wants to see what Jean saw, understand his America.
Accompanying both men on their travels is the signature sound of the Appalachian South: the folk songs that unexpectedly remind Jean of home, and that Jonah rediscovers as he makes his way across the country. In Where the Mountain Meets the Sea, playwright Jeff Augustin traces the unforgettable journeys of an immigrant and his son, their voices deftly interwoven with live original music by The Bengsons.
As Augustin describes it, the inspiration for this Actors Theatre-commissioned play was a pair of ironies: “My dad has worked at an airport his entire life, but he doesn’t really fly. And I live in Los Angeles, but I don’t know how to drive.” Early in his writing process, Augustin found himself reflecting further on his family, particularly the ways in which sharing music and telling stories brings them together. He was equally intrigued, however, by what’s left unsaid. “I was thinking about the things my parents haven’t ever talked about—and what I haven’t talked to them about,” he recalls. “We have narratives about our parents, and I’m sure our parents have narratives about us. We’re all living such separate lives.” When Jean dies, it occurs to Jonah that his father will never know that he’s gay, and maybe never really knew him at all. What of Jean’s life did Jonah never understand either? Despite a mutual love of language—Jean was a teacher in Haiti, and Jonah is pursuing a Ph.D. in linguistics—they couldn’t always find the right words to say to each other.
Instead, father and son speak to us, revealing moments of heartache, joy, and self-discovery as the stories of their cross-country adventures unfold side by side. Augustin was drawn to writing about hitting the road in part because it’s such an iconic experience. “It’s the best way to get to know yourself as an American,” he explains, “and it felt important for Jonah, this black gay kid, to do that too.” For Jean, meanwhile, driving across the U.S. is as much about reconnecting with Haiti as it is about exploring his adopted home. Toward the beginning of Where the Mountain Meets the Sea, thanks to the spin of a car radio dial, Jean encounters the folk music of the Appalachians. The sound transports him to the mountains where he grew up listening to his own father play guitar. “Moun mòn [mountain people] are made from all the same things,” Jean observes. With his sense of Haiti starting to fade, he resolves to visit the moun mòn of the U.S. and hear their music in person, his mission threefold: “Get a taste of my country, strengthen my memories and learn of America.”
Folk music goes on to have such a pivotal role in both Jean and Jonah’s lives that it almost becomes a third character, according to Augustin. “The music in itself feels like traveling to me,” he elaborates. “The Appalachian folk tradition comes from all sorts of different cultures. It’s very authentic to what America means, and feels like, to an immigrant and to a first-generation kid.” Abigail and Shaun Bengson, known for their shows Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones, have created a vibrant, folk-infused score for Where the Mountain Meets the Sea, and the acclaimed composer-musicians perform alongside the actors who play Jean and Jonah. Augustin has found his collaboration with The Bengsons incredibly satisfying. “I’m someone who writes instinctively, and their work also comes from a personal place,” he says. “But then we can go at it in a more intellectual, structural way—they have an amazing sense of musical history and bridge modern and more traditional ideas of folk music. Not to mention that they’re just two beautiful souls.”
The Appalachian folk tradition comes from all sorts of different cultures. It’s very authentic to what America means, and feels like, to an immigrant and to a first-generation kid.
Given the intimacy of the play’s storytelling and music, Augustin likens the experience of being in the audience for Where the Mountain Meets the Sea to spending an evening with a close friend, listening to the radio and talking long into the night. At the same time, the play feels as expansive as Jean and Jonah’s journeys; Augustin notes in the script that the setting is “a space of possibility,” spanning “then, and now, and years in the unknown future.” It’s a place where the open road awaits, and you can find what you didn’t know you were looking for on the next FM station or at the next highway stop. It’s a place where a father and son might come to see each other at last. And it’s a place where they can sing, together, of their America.
—Jessica Reese Commissioned by Actors Theatre of Louisville