As mourners audibly sob and somewhere a choir sings the gospel hymn “Steal Away,” a stunned-looking, steely-eyed woman approaches the rectangle of flowers guarding the unseen corpse of the young girl whose portrait we see near-by. With increasing snarl, she hisses, “Look at that face ... Cream at the top of milk-pail face ... That sneaky face.” And with that, she draws a knife and slashes downward to the horrored gasps of those gathered to mourn, slashing the dead girl’s serenity.
From that desperate plunge of the blade in the spring of 1926 in New York’s Harlem comes pouring waves of memories that call and answer to each other like the instruments playing the background, bluesy jazz music that underscores their appearances before us. The revengeful act of this woman, Violet, is targeted at the young lover, Dorcas, of Violet’s unfaithful husband, Joe, after he shot the girl in his own act of crazed jealousy. We soon learn that these acts of violence have many, complicated, often-sad, intertwining events and causes behind them – some going back many years prior.
In Marin Theatre Company’s achingly stunning, grippingly engaging West Coast premiere of Nambi E. Kelley’s Jazz – a 2017 adaptation of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison’s 1992 historical novel by the same name – the memories and the subsequent events of Violet’s rashness proceed in a style much like that of the play’s and book’s title, Jazz. With each encounter of the story taking on an air of improvisation; with parallel scenes that both blend and clash in duet, and with words that musically flow alternatively in harsh staccato and in long, hypnotic extensions, Awoye Timpo directs Jazz to a beat that mirrors the new music form that was sweeping through the streets of the 1920’s Harlem that Nambi E. Kelley’s play visits.
C. Kelly Wright heads an all-star cast as the emotionally erratic but determinedly focused Violet who is in search for answers as to who was this girl that her husband loved and led him on a life-erupting, wanderlust venture. Her Violet recalls the memories of her earlier times in Vesper County, Virginia where life was particularly hard for all African Americans as whites were seeking their revenge and their sickening paybacks for their losses of the Civil War and their free-labor slaves. It was there as a girl-turning-woman she flat-out resolves to her grandmother, True Belle, (Margo Hall) to have “no babies” and to “find me a job, a man, and forget watching mama in that well” – the last a memory Violet fights to escape of her mother’s tragic death. C. Kelly Wright commands the part of Violet with such incredible finesse and interpretation that every snippet of a Virginia memory or of a current, Harlem moment is gigantic in its powerful, oft-arresting effect.
Her Violet plays out more than once in a stage memory the first time she met Joe Trace – an introduction after he either fell-out or purposefully jumped out (according to whose version we believe) of a tree almost to crush his target – the beautiful, young Violet. Joe was perched there trying to catch a glimpse of his mind-deranged mother, Wild, who had abandoned him and who now roamed like an animal the Virginia countryside. The memories of that first encounter and the night that follows erotically come to life in a blues-filled, body-pumping dance that leaves no doubt of the love Violet and Joe once had.
Michael Gene Sullivan continues his Bay Area reputation for award-winning performances as he captures the rough and raw essence of his Joe Trace. We are initially and magnetically drawn to Joe for his life-loving zeal and passion for his young wife as she recalls their hard-life but happy-together days in Virginia and their move to a heaven-sounding Harlem where he has told her there are “whole streets where Negroes own their own houses.” But his Joe is also a man for whom we come to have strong aversion as he begins to fawn over and then paw with roaming hands the naively willing and encouraging Dorcas (Dezi Solèy) – a teen who is too caught up in Harlem’s rich and lusty music as she acquiesces too easily to a man more than twice her age.
Ms. Solèy’s own performance is both mesmerizing and maddening to watch as we see the young Dorcas play so sweetly and literally into the roaming hands of the near-drooling Joe. (In a stroke of casting genius, Dezi Solèy also plays the mother, Wild, that Joe earlier has manically sought.) Once deceased, her Dorcas becomes a living, forward-staring portrait to whom Violet continually rants and raves but from whom Violet so wants answers and understanding.
Besides True Belle, Margo Hall is distinctively strong-jawed and open-hearted as the aunt named Alice who raised Dorcas. After Dorcas’s demise, Alice frequently finds herself both answering the door and the trying to escape the pounding of questions as Violet repeatedly arrives seeking answers about her victim. But in a dose of solace and friendship that clearly surprises even her, Dorcas’ blunt, strong-willed Aunt begins to take an increasingly sympathetic turn. Brava to Margo Hall for a superbly fine performance.
Like a jazz number that jumps suddenly in tempo, lead instrument, and musical perspective, so does Nambi E. Kelley’s Jazz. We hear accounted viewpoints through the titillating gossip and confidently held opinions of Malvonne, played with hands firmly on hips and eyes seeing all by Lisa Lacy. Tiffany Tenille is Dorcas’s young friend Felice (among other roles), who – when finding time to chatter with Dorcas – adds a faster beat and snappy steps to the tale’s music-like telling. Dane Troy steps into a variety of roles both in Virginia and in Harlem, most notably as the fast-dancing, totally jazz-jiving Acton, a teenage boy who awakens Dorcas out of her Joe-induced slumber some might call a nightmare.
Accompanying and often comforting Violet throughout her memory search for answers of her manic questions of who, what, and why is Parrot – a once-gift from Joe who has an omnipresence in both her knowing looks and her songs of understanding as she sits perched to the side onstage. Paige Mayes projects uncanny, birdlike ability with her slight head cocks, her bill-shaped pursing of lips, and her piercing but humor-filled eyes that see what the humans around her are mostly missing. Her lyrical voice sings in a variety of period styles with snippets of songs that give telltale signs of her avian intuition of seeing the truth behind the love and the lust as well as the tears and the torments occurring around her.
Director Awoye Timpo allows the dreams and realities to mix and blur on a mostly blank, raised stage designed by Kimie Nishikawa. The wooden stage’s surrounding steps become resting spots for cast members as they pause in their parts of the story-telling to watch the scripted solos or duets occurring around them – much like players in a jazz band watch as a drummer or sax player takes off on a musical journey while the others just take it in. Lighting by Jeff Rowlings adds its dreamy effects against a scrim-curtained backdrop and its own flairs of colorful embellishments in swirling, feathery twirls in the above, recessed ceiling. Gregory Robinson’s sound design chimes in for effects both here-and-now and ethereal. Joanna Haigood’s choreography brings the joy of a broom-jumping wedding in Virginia and the sexy and wild innovations of Harlem’s 1920s. And the ongoing fusion of times, places, moods, and memories receives a pallet of clarity through the wide range of costumes deliciously designed by Karen Perry that range from the night-club wild to the Sunday, go-to-church proper.
Underlying the play is a score composed and orchestrated by San Francisco’s jazz artist extraordinaire, Marcus Shelby. He leads no less than twelve talented musicians (including one vocalist, Jamie Zimmer) in jazz and blues enriched background music, produced as a recording by Eric Moffat.
Besides the fascinating, haunting storyline of Nambi E. Kelley’s adapted Jazz, there is a parallel telling of important history of both the post-war South of the early twentieth century and of the early days of African Americans changing the course of musical and American history in the 1920’s Harlem. There is also a strong theme of the resilience, strength, trials, and triumphs (even if small and temporary) of the African American women of the period. Each of the women portrayed on the Marin stage is a particular portrait of a girl or woman who is figuring out or has long-ago figured out how to survive, stay actively alive (even as a ghost), and in her own way thrive in the oft-messed-up (by men) world around her. For me, those portrayals are the real beauty and will likely be my lasting memory of this must-see production of Jazz.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
— EDDIE REYNOLDS, THEATER EDDYS Read full review