“Jazz” — a four letter word that is, surely, one of the most evocative of all the words in American English. It can send chills down the spine of any sensitive auditor. That short “a,” surrounded by two voiced fricatives, is capable of endless elongation and variation. Like the music it names, it is a word that lies at the center of African-American experience, radiating out in surprising elaborations.
Jazz, and its even earthier mother, the Blues, was not always recognized as the great art form we know today. For generations, it was frowned upon by right thinking people, Black and white alike, who were disquieted by “dirty” lyrics and sensuous beats. The wail of a saxophone and syncopated rhythm seemed to release something from the depths of the soul that could be frightening and overwhelming.
Is it any wonder that our greatest African-American novelist, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, would name a novel “Jazz” and construct it along the musical model of theme and variation?
Morrison’s novel explores the origins of an easy-to-describe yet deeply disturbing series of events: a happily married middle-aged man falls into an affair with a teenaged girl and, when she eventually rejects him, shoots her. His wife attends the girl’s funeral and shocks the community by defacing the corpse with a knife. How could such a thing happen among seemingly happy, well-adjusted people?
The remainder of the book explores the histories of the various characters, looking back at least as far as slavery, to understand the personal and cultural depths from which the tragic tale (not without its aspects of redemption) has arisen.
In the background of each story is Jazz music—a phenomenon hated by some and adored by others, and for the same reason: it’s rootedness in Black experience and its capacity to tap deep emotional streams and set them flowing until they become a torrent, for good or for bad.
Nambi Kelly’s adaptation of Morrison’s novel, as directed by Awoye Timpo, works spectacularly well, incorporating an original Jazz score by distinguished composer and performer Marcus Shelby (resident artitic director of SF Jazz) and exciting movement and choreography by Joanna Haigood.
The theme is set early on, when Violet (C. Kelly Wright), the wife of the man who killed his young mistress Dorcas, knocks upon the door of Dorcas’s bereaved Aunt Alice (Margo Hall), to ask if she could learn about the girl. Alice is not welcoming. Their encounter opens with this telling bit of dialog. Alice at Violet: “I don’t understand women like you—women with knives.” And Violet replies sorrowfully: “I wasn’t born with a knife!” And that’s the point: how did Violet (and every other character) get from “there” to “here.”
As these two women, who gradually become friends, Hall and Wright are the beating heart of “Jazz.” Margo Hall is especially impressive, demonstrating once again that she is a great artist whose acting has matured beyond impersonation and typical professional skill into a realm of deep and profound story telling; she is like an African griot, an ancient story teller, as rooted as a centuries-old tree. Her duets with Wright are beautiful to experience, the emotion true.
Other cast members deliver sterling performances, including Michael Gene Sullivan as Violet’s husband and Dorcas’s lover, Joe, and Dezi Solèy as Dorcas. Paige Mayes is memorable in the surreal part of a pet parrot, who narrates and comments upon the action.
All the other elements are excellent, including the versatile set design by Kimie Nishikawa utilizing cotton plants, whose frail blossoms of puffy white fiber carry an enormous weight of metaphorical history and the costumes by Karen Perry which perfectly capture the time and place of the story. Marcus Shelby’s rhythmically inventive score is a perfect accompaniment.
“Jazz” is an excellent and affecting work of theatrical art, full of beautiful design and memorable performances.
“Jazz” plays at Marin Theatre Company through May 19 , 2019. For further information, click here.
“Jazz” adapted by Nambi E. Kelly from the book by Toni Morrion. Director: Awoye Timpo. Music: Marcu Shelby. Choreography: Joanna Haigood. Scenic Designer: Kimie Nishikawa. Costume Designer: Karen Perry. Lighting Designer: Jeff Rowlings. Sound Designer: Gregory Robinson.
Alice Manfred/True Belle: Margo Hall. Malvonne/Country Gossip: Lisa Lacy. Parrot/Golden Gray: Paige Mayes. Dorca/Wild: Dezi Soley. Joe Trace/Country Joe: Michael Gene Sullivan. Felice/Cigarette Girl/Wild’s Shadow: Tiffany Tenille. Henry Lestroy/Acton/Country Drunk/Numbers Runner: Dane Troy. Violet/Counry Violet: C. Kelly Wright.