Jazz a noble effort at Marin Theatre

Violet and Joe’s wedding: (L-R) Dane Troy, Tiffany Tenille, Michael Gene Sullivan, C. Kelly Wright, Margo Hall, Paige Mayes, Lisa Lacy. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Jazz: Drama with music. Adapted by Nambi E. Kelley. Based on the book of the same name by Toni Morrison. Directed by Awoye Timpo . Music by Marcus Shelby. Marin Theatre Company (MTC), 397 Miller Ave | Mill Valley, CA. 415.388.5200. www.info@marintheatre.org .

April 25 – May 19, 2019

Jazz a noble effort at Marin Theatre. Rating: ★★★☆☆1/2

Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of the novel “Jazz” by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American author Toni Morrison has had long journey from page to stage. It received its world premiere in Baltimore in 1917 and now a revised version graces the stage at Marin Theatre Company (MTC).

Author Kelley’s prize winning adaptation of Richard Wright’s  Native Son was a smash hit when MTC mounted it in 2017 with a split stage to keep the White vs. Black action separate using center stage for interaction using  a linear format.  Jazz  is non-linear and there is no attempt to separate the action except by words with multiple time frames and character shifts ongoing at the same time although the action is in separate years. She is apparently fond of anthropomorphism by visualizing a parrot (Devi Soley) as sort of a Greek chorus commenting on the non-stop action and briefly taking a role in it. That idiosyncrasy is only partially effective.  Your strict attention is required to keep track of the characters and the time shifts sometimes that dilute the words and action.

It is a memory play that starts in Harlem 1926 with shifts back and forth to the rural South before the great migration to NYC’s Harlem where jazz and the blues took root.  The title places blame for the music of the time (Jazz) as the catalyst for bad Black behavior and that introduction of the storyline is bookended by the same comment: “It’s the music.”

It starts at the funeral of teenaged Dorcas (Dezi Soley) who has been shot by her middle-aged lover Joe (Michael Gene Sullivan) who is married to befuddled, yet loyal Violet (C. Kelly Wright).  Symbolically Dorcas sit motionless behind a scrim throughout those scenes. The crime is not reported because Violet insists the police would not take the murder seriously and she becomes obsessed and enraged with the dead Dorcas who stole her husband’s love and she attacks the corpse at the funeral.

Violet’s obsession continues after the death Dorcas leading her to visits with Dorcas’s Aunt Manfred (Margo Hall), seeking answers to unanswered questions. She is given a framed photo of Dorcas that hangs on her wall. Technically Docas returns behind the scrim where she sat during the funeral. Joe’s guilty psyche and the presence of the photo leads him to attempt suicide using a gun. He is thwarted by Violet who suggests a knife would be more appropriate.

Through all of this the music gets the blame: “Just hearing it is like violating the law.” Bay-Area jazz musician Marcus Shelby has written a score that backs up the entire evening adding depth to the action on stage but at times is intrusive.

The cast is terrific beginning with C. Kelly Wrights’ Violet who defines the change of emotions needed with distinctive flair. The versatility of  Michael Gene Sullivan’s ability is on display in his depiction from Rural Joe, to enthralled lover, to guilt ridden adult Joe. Dezi Soley as Dorcas dominates the stage investing her role with quiet truth. Always proficient Margo Hall is a joy to watch and adds another star to her CV.

Director Awoye Timpo is to be admired for his control of the action and interaction of his cast but is hampered by the construction of the play that is difficult to follow.

Scenic designer Kimie Nishikawa’s set is a beauty with elegant lighting by Jeff Rollins and with bare minimum props changing from flowers at a funeral to a cotton field and utilizes the scrim to great advantage. Karen Perry’s costume designs are spectacular from the “parrot feathers” to farmer’s overalls and spiffy stripped suits for the limber limbed Dane Toy.  

All in all it is well worth spending the 100 minute, without intermission, running time because MTC’s production values are superlative and it is an adaptation of a “Toni Morrison.”

CAST: Margo Hal,  Alice Manfred/True Belle and Music Captain; Lisa Lacy, Malvonne/Country Gossip; Paige Mayes, Parrot/Golden Gray and Dance Captain; Dezi Solèy, Dorcas/Wild; Michael Gene Sullivan, Joe Trace/Country Jo; Tiffany Tenille, Felice/Cigarette Girl/Wild’s Shadow; Dane Troy, Henry Lestroy/Acton/Country Drunk/Numbers Runner; C. Kelly Wright, Violet/Country Violet.

CREATIVE TEAM: ​Nambi E. Kelley, Playwright; ​Awoye Timpo,Diorecto; Marcus Shelby, Composer;Kimie Nishikawa, Scenic Designer; Karen Perry, Costume Designer; Jeff Rowlings, Lighting Designer; Gregory Robinson, Sound Designer; Joanna Haigood, Choreographer; Whitney Stone. Assistant to the Choreographer; ​Arminda Thomas, Co-Dramaturg; Laura Brueckner, Co-Dramaturg; Jerome Butler. Dialect Coach; Jessica R. Aguilar, Production Stage Manager; Trevor Scott Floyd, Artistic Producer; Dori Jacob, Casting Director; Julia Formanek, Production Assistant/Assistant Stage Manager; Olivia Dillon, Assistant Director.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of www.theatreworldim2.com.

Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Violet and Joe’s wedding: (L-R) Dane Troy, Tiffany Tenille, Michael Gene Sullivan, C. Kelly Wright, Margo Hall, Paige Mayes, Lisa Lacy.