By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
The Jazz Age held different experiences for different folks and Harlem, in New York City, became a cultural mecca in the 1920s. Author and activist James Weldon Johnson called it “the greatest Negro city in the world” as there was a predominant African-American population, but underneath the music, dancing, and good times, many experienced the hardships and tribulations of the African-American community or, in general, just trying to get by. Baltimore Center Stage‘s latest offering, The world premiere of Jazz by Nambi E. Kelley, Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah gives us a glimpse into those hardships that transcend race but are relevant to all human beings throughout time.
Jazz covers a story of generations spanning from the late 1800s through the 1920s and follows Violet, a woman how lost her mother when she was young and sent off into the world to make her own. Along the way, she meets Joe, an eager young man who seems to want the same things in life she wants and they settle in Harlem, in New York City. After years of a seemingly good marriage, Joe strays and falls for the very young Dorcas but, after a short affair, Dorcas falls for another young man and leaves the older Joe with fatal repercussions. After the affair and a quite unfortunate incident, Violet’s life seems to spiral out of control and she tries to find the reasons why it happened while also trying to find answers from the past to explain her current state.
Production value at Baltimore Center Stage is always stellar and Jazz is no different with a minimal but very effective Set Design by Tim Macabee and Projection Design by Alex Basco Koch. The set consists of four large windows that drop in and out and various set pieces to cleverly represent different locations. The simple design helps move the story along and the representation is just enough to help tell the story and crowd the stage with unnecessary set. With help from the cast, scene changes are smooth and it’s easy to determine where each scene is taking place. Koch’s projections add much to the production and help with determining time. His use of what looks like old newsreel footage and vintage photographs gives the piece a surreal feel and moves the story along rather than distract from it. Kudos to Macabee and Basco for the Set and Projection Designs for this production.
Costume Design by David Burdick is spot on representing the styles of the eras this piece covers. His attention to detail is superb with the low waist skirts for the younger ladies and the more conservative look of the older folks. It’s worth mentioning that Burdick does a great job showing the contrast between the fashions of the generations and he understands this piece does not require the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age, but has managed to put together a wardrobe portraying the middle to low class residents of Harlem and all of his choices give the entire piece a very authentic feel.
This script jumps through time periods and points of view and if I didn’t have the program to give me a timeline of the story, I may have been lost so, I can tell it’s a challenging piece. Through his Direction of this piece, Kwame Kwei-Armah tries to keep it all together, and does for the most part, but the disorienting script is difficult to reign in and the story seems to spill out all over the place. Kwei-Armah keeps the action moving and he seems to have a good comprehension of the material but his choice of using the cast to make the minimal scene changes with no real blackouts to separate scenes might have added to the confusion concerning time periods and points of view. I totally understand his reasoning as it is a 90-minute show with no intermission so, you’ve got to keep the action moving, but perhaps at least a few projections or markers to keep the audience on track may have been helpful. Overall, Kwei-Armah does an admirable job and tells the story as best he can with the material given to him.
The entire ensemble of Jazz is committed and dedicated to this piece an, aside from the material, they all do a commendable job telling this poignant story and work hard to get the message across. Among the able ensemble, Michele Shay takes on the role of Alice Manfred and Leon Addison Brown portrays an older Joe Trace. Shay, though a bit scripted, does a fine job portraying the elderly, more wise female figure with down-home common sense and compassion. She clearly understands her character and keeps it consistent throughout the production. Brown, as older Joe, is also a bit stiff at times, but his comprehension of the character is clear and the emotion he exudes of a man yearning for something more than his lot is impressive.
Warner Miller is comfortable playing the role of Young Joe Trace, an ambitious, go-getter, and gives a believable and confident performance. Miller has a good command of the stage and makes the character likable from the get. Meanwhile, Jasmine Batchelor tackles the role of Dorcas, the young, beautiful “other woman,” and she is the epitome of a young woman in the 1920s. She’s authentic and assured, playing the character with just the right balance of naivete and rebellion that the character requires.
A couple of highlights of this production are Jasmine Carmichael as Young Violet and Shanesia Davis as the older Violet, the character around whom the story revolves. The character of Violet is the most complex and has obvious emotional problems that are not necessarily explained aside from past losses and issues but both of these actresses play the character well and with an intensity needed for the role. Carmichael is outstanding as the Young Violet and seems comfortable and assured in her objectives playing a young girl starting out while Davis portrays the character a little more beat down by the world but who is a survivor and getting by as best she can, while fighting the emotional unbalance in her. Both bring an authenticity to the role that makes the audience feel for their plight and, in the end, root for this character. Both actors have great chemistry with their counterparts (Warner Miller for Carmichael and Leon Addison Brown for Davis), and they work well with their cast mates making for exquisite performances.
Final thought… The World Premiere of Jazz at Baltimore Center Stage is a bit deceiving by name alone as it really does not concern itself with the music style but is a story of love, love loss, and how different humans deal with that loss. The script is a bit trite and jumps around between points of view with no real definition between time periods making the transitions a bit confusing, but most of the performances are top notch and it tells a good story. That being said, the script may need work but the overall production has a beautiful look with its design and complimenting projections and is well-thought out and well put-together, telling a complex story that transcends race and is just as relevant to the 21st century as it was to the early late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s production of Jazz… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
Jazz will play through June 25 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-332-0033 or purchase them online.
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By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy