The Oxford Dictionary defines “jazz” as a type of music of black American origin characterized by improvisation, syncopation, and usually a regular or forceful rhythm.
The same definition could be applied to Nambi E. Kelley’s Jazz, her theatrical adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel of the same name. Awoye Timpo directs the Marin Theatre Company production running through May 19 in Mill Valley.
Death hangs over this story like a coffin lid, which is exactly what the scenic design by Kimie Nishikawa evokes from the opening. Below it is the grave of an unknown person, surrounded by mourners. Enter a woman who begins to rail against the deceased before pulling out a knife with the intent to disfigure the corpse.
We soon learn that the woman is Violet Trace (C. Kelley Wright), wife of Joe Trace (Michael Gene Sullivan), and that the deceased was a young girl named Dorcas (Dezi Soley). She was Joe’s mistress and Joe shot her after she attempted to end the relationship. Violet is bedside herself trying to understand why Joe would enter into that relationship. The story then moves back and forth in time and location as Violet and Joe’s story is told.
Having not read the book, I can’t tell you whether or not the playwright successfully captures the essence of the novel, or what is kept or lost when a 229-page novel is reduced to 95 uninterrupted minutes.
What I can say is that the non-linear approach is often confusing. Scenes and dialogue are repeated, ostensibly from different points of view, but that is often not very clear. A parrot (portrayed by Paige Mayes with wonderful physicality in a terrific Karen Perry-designed costume) seems to exist only to chirp “I love you” to Violet. By the end, we do get a sense of why Joe did what he did, but the morally ambiguous conclusion is unsatisfying.
What is more than satisfying is the caliber of performance brought to this tale by a cast of Bay Area stalwarts and guest talent. Wright and Sullivan give towering lead performances and are given a bedrock of support from Margo Hall as Alice Manfred, Dorca’s aunt and guardian. Soley spends a great deal of time on stage as a “living” painting, but really comes alive in her portrayal of Dorcas. Strong work is done by the entire ensemble.
Jazz isn’t the most comprehensible play. Actually, it’s a bit of a mess, but a well-produced and well-acted one.