Monday, July 20, 2015

Poetry saves and sinks "...And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi" but production might be worth the visit

...And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi (Ken Holmes)
…And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi
Sound Theatre Company/Brownbox Theatre
(at the Armory)
Through August 2, 2015

Thick Louisiana poetry covers the course of the Civil War with a story of one family and its slaves. Marcus Gardley’s play …And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, performed by a terrific cast in a co-production of Sound Theatre Company and Brownbox Theatre, takes a long way ‘round to tell a simple tale.

This 2 3/4 hour piece has a lot of beautiful imagery and words. Some of the multiple ensemble characters speak in verse, as well. The production is well-presented with gorgeous settings by Burton Yuen, costumes of patchwork by Candace Frank, mood lighting by Richard Schaefer, and haunting sounds by Dana Amromin. Original music and well-known spirituals are included by composer/music director Jesse Smith.

With hints of Greek mythology, a character, Demeter (Santiago) comes looking for her lost daughter, Po-em. Po-em was the slave of Cadence and Jean Verse (Danielle Daggerty and Nick Rempel), but she’s now missing. When Demeter comes to their house, she meets two children, a white child, Blanche Verse (Sunam Ellis) and a black child who powders her face white, Free (Lindsay Zae Summers). They think they are twins.

Through song and verse, Demeter learns that Free is Po-em’s child with the master who says he loved her, and Cadence is said to have killed Po-em in vengeance. Demeter strives to help Free learn who she truly is, to embrace her real family.

The story unfolds in starts and stops, veers over to when Jean meets a Yankee bugler (Anthony Duckett), and introduces great characters of the River Mississippi (Kathya Alexander) and The Great Tree (Tee Dennard) and Jesus (Shermona Mitchell), who sits at Free’s right side. The River and The Tree speak of the ways of the earth.

There are many lovely performances in this production. Alexander, as Miss Sissippi, is a force of nature with her stately manner and booming and commanding singing voice. The youngsters, Ellis and Summers, keep the piece from bogging down under its own weight, and are a joy to watch. Santiago, who is appearing on stage, apparently, for the first time, holds his own with grace.

Rempel and Duckett do a great job with their scenes, though why they are there and what their message is ends up being as convoluted and disguised as many other aspects of the play.

Director Tyrone Brown works diligently to get his arms around this unwieldy discourse, and clearly has a deep affinity for the material. In that sense, he does about as well as anyone probably could to give it a sense of coherence. But ultimately, the piece would be far better served by trimming at least 45 minutes of poetry.

There is no reason for Jesus to moonwalk, here, though Mitchell brings a lightness and fun into her portrayal of a black, female Jesus. Another odd choice is the transition from Demeter to Damascus (from one male actor to another male actor) for unclear reasons.  

But if you look at it as a ceremony, there is a gravity and an almost necessity for the production. Patience will reward you with a sense that you’ve gone through a cleansing. However, you may not feel like that is reward enough.

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