21 March 2010

. . . and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi

One of the things I like about Cutting Ball Theater is that, without making a big deal about it, they have a history of including plays about the African-American experience. They’ve done several by the wonderful Suzan-Lori Parks, and now we have Marcus Gardley’s . . .and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi. The tiny stage of the Cutting Ball expands to epic size with this rich, rewarding tale of the final days of the Civil War. It opens and closes with gospel music and the great river (Miss Ssippi, played by Nicole C. Julien, and her chorus of attendants, Rebecca Frank, Halili Knox, and Erica Richardson) speaking to us just as a river should: flowing, poetic, sometimes clotted and muddy, sometimes clear and limpid, sometimes imperious and indifferent, sometimes sheltering and cleansing. Yes, Julien and Co. have figured out how to play a river. Nature takes an active part in the proceedings; there’s also a tree, played by David Westley Skillman, who later is the hilariously deadpan, benevolent Jesus (though he gives Him compelling depth when he needs to).

Nature and the human world (because even though the play is filled with the sort of compelling language and poetic vision that is basic to the Cutting Ball mission, in between the gospel choruses and the river’s monologue there is a plot driving the evening, a melodramatic Faulknerian engine of loves, jealousies, masters, and slaves) combine in the key figure of Damascus, a slave who takes advantage of the chaos of war to run away; he is caught, castrated, and lynched. The Great Tree allows him to return to earth for two days to search for his missing daughter, only he must return as a woman, Demeter. As the name tells you, the story of Demeter and Persephone is referenced (and as the name Damascus tells you, there are Biblical references too). Aldo Billingslea is outstanding in the double role. He manages to lighten his voice and gestures delicately enough to convince us he is the woman Demeter, without mincing or exaggerating her into a caricature. He keeps his power both as Damascus and as Demeter.

Adding to the mix of the play are references to African-American folklore and theater, often in the lanky, canny person of Brer Bit (Martin F. Grizzell, Jr). The whole cast is strong (here are those I haven’t mentioned so far: Erika A. McCrary in the key role of Free Girl, David Sinaiko as Jean Verse, Sarah Mitchell as his wife Blanche Verse, Jeanette Harrison as their daughter Cadence Marie Verse, and Zac Shuman as Yankee Pot Roast) and they all have their moments. This is a play that would hold up over repeated viewings.

I'm giving this an enthusiastic recommendation, but here are the things I didn’t like: the use of a quilt as a map/metaphor, the whole thing about Demeter needing to find his daughter so that he can pass on his song or release the song inside her or something, and naming the daughter Poem (not sure if I’m spelling that as it should be, since they pronounce it more like “Po’ Em,” as in Poor Emily, but I’m just guessing there). Plays can work with such clunkingly obvious names as Poem, Free, Verse, etc (I’m thinking of Streetcar Named Desire, with its Belle Reve, Elysian Fields, and indeed the streetcar Desire, not to mention Everyman and the works of Jonson and the Restoration dramatists, though they of course use such names for comic effect), but I just find them . . . clunkingly obvious. As for the quilt and passing on the song, I have no philosophical objections; I just find those things trite and “inspirational” in kind of a hacky way. (V, who taught me how to quilt, once said as we were looking through piles of quilting books, all heavy with metaphor, that she wanted to write a book about quilts called They’re Really Just Bedcovers.) These threadbare moments aren’t really necessary: Demeter’s search makes both emotional and metaphorical sense without framing it in such obvious terms.

The other minor thing I disliked: Jesus really does, at one point, moonwalk the Mississippi. There are many moments of comedy and music and strangeness in the play that arise naturally; this felt shoehorned in. Many of the themes in the play – about gender, race, pop music and entertainment, even searching for a lost child – appear in grotesque form in Michael Jackson’s career. But the music from Thriller doesn't hold up next to the gospel songs that are woven through the rest of the play, and Jackson is a figure of such weirdness that his appearance, even as a reference, is more of a distraction than an illumination. But then I’ve never found Jackson of any interest as an entertainer, except as a cultural phenomenon/cautionary tale. Exploring his life would make a fascinating play, but a different one. I had the feeling that “Jesus moonwalking the Mississippi” was one of those haunting images around which the play began to crystallize; even though the work outgrew the image, it remained, a vestige. The musician who really hovered over the work for me was Richard Wagner; this play ends, as does the Ring, with a fire, a flood, and the ambiguous redemption of a new beginning.

It’s a terrific evening: go see it if you can. And for the first time in my last several visits to Cutting Ball Theater, I was not poked, prodded, kicked, or rudely discussed by either the women beside me or the guys behind me. It adds to the pleasures of the evening, not being abused like that.

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