JAZZ is the Center Stage world premiere of Nobel Prize winning Toni Morrison’s middle piece of her BELOVED trilogy that chronicals a tragic Harlem love triangle that takes a violent turn.
The performance opens with a death watch as family gathers to give a ‘proper burial’ to Dorcas, played with sensuous abandon by Jasmine Bathchelor the wild young woman caught in the middle between her older Sugar Daddy lover Joe Trace, played with the world weary burden of a traveling salesman by Leon Addison Brown, and the young Dandy Acton who dances into Dorcas’ life as Warner Miller, a dead ringer for one of the Jackson Five.
But Shanesia Davis as Violet the betrayed wife, who spirals into madness, evolves as a central character from the knife wielding mad woman at Dorcas’ funeral to a soulful, forgiving shell of a woman with the patience and encouragement of Mother figure True Belle played with authentic black matronly maturity by Michele Shay.
JAZZ is not a musical, but captures the mystical power of the Harlem jazz culture and its impact on the Great Migration of southern blacks to the Mecca of urban culture. In this electrically charged environment dance and jazz music both define and corrupt the fast paced life of country immigrants trying to make sense of life in the big city.
“I’m a huge fan of Toni Morrison, and of JAZZ in particular. It’s an important chronicle of the human experience, and although it takes place in the 1920s, the story’s themes still resonate today,” said Baltimore Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah. “I’m thrilled to direct such a talented group of actors and designers and to bring Playwright Nambi Kelley’s vision to life on the stage in Baltimore.”
The magic of Center Stage’s production of JAZZ is Playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s masterful interpretation of Morrison’s work of literature, which are notorious for their nuanced difficulty to discern truth from mythical characters and time stamps.
Joan Sullivan, a Paul Lawrence Dunbar graduate and avid Morrison reader and audience member captured the essence of the play best. She was first exposed to Morrison in a gifted and talented track in high school, but found that she had to re-read ‘BELOVED’ and other Morrison masterpieces in college and later as an adult to fully appreciate her style. “It takes maturity to understand Morrison, and I will be downloading “JAZZ” and reading it again to fully re-connect and open my mind to what the play delivered”!
JAZZ is a metaphor for the exhilarating pace of life that consumed Joe, Violet and Dorcas. Joe needed a place of peace and quiet from his long days on the street as a door-to-door salesman and couldn’t stand the smell of the burning hair of Violet’s customers. The naïve country girl Dorcas was easily impressed by gifts of Joe’s perfume, but wanted more of Harlem’s high life. And Joe lusted after the young ‘high yellow gal’ as an escape from his faithful but dark-skinned wife as Morrison deftly spun a tale of authentic colorism to highlight and capture Violet’s grief.
JAZZ is a mesmerizing time machine that takes you back to Joe and Violet’s humble beginnings in turn-of-the-century rural Virginia and flashes forward to the end of World War I when black New Yorkers took great pride in the Lenox Avenue parades that showcased the return of the 369th Black Hellfighters Regiment. Five years later, Dorcas would leave the violence of East St. Louis riots join the migration to Harlem that would double the black population to over 327,000 souls squeezed into less than 4 square miles.
JAZZ is a traumatic 90 minute trip into a migratory time machine that the young creative team of Nambi E. Kelley and Kwame Kwei-Armah has re-imagined for a modern audience
JAZZ opened last Friday, May 26th, and closes Sunday, June 25th and is well worth the 45 minute drive to Charm City for Washingtonians, but I strongly invite you to allow enough time to arrive early and drink in the deep educational and cultural experience of Center Stage’s marvelous new space. For more information, visit www.centerstage.org or call the box office at 410.332.0033.