“In sharp compassionate vignettes, plucked from different episodes of their lives,” writes Edna O’Brien in her 1992 New York Times review of Toni Morrison’s Jazz, “the author portrays people who are together simply because they were put down together, people tricked for a while into believing that life would serve them, powerless to change their fate…people enthralled then deceived by ‘the music the world makes.’”
Such is the case in the world premiere of an adaptation of the novel by Nambi E. Kelley, now playing at Center Stage. Jazz follows couple Joe and Violet as they find each other and leave their rural roots behind to seek the opportunity of the big city, settling in Harlem. Flash forward a few decades, and Joe has killed the young girl with whom he was having an affair, Dorcas, leaving Violet distressed and on the brink of insanity, obsessively mining for details about the young woman who “stole” her husband.
Throughout the production, the spare set gives a platform to small, consonant scenes—sometimes overlapping, sometimes replaying, slightly changed, sometimes happening in the mind’s eye of the character before us. It’s emotional and ever-changing, arrhythmic but stirring. In short, it’s much like the music that gives it its name.
Now, I’m not a fan of jazz, but I’m a huge fan of Jazz, having read it in an African-American literature class like so many undergrads before me. Had I not, however, I’m not sure how well I would have followed the plot of Kelley’s adaptation. The narrative is complicated and loosely wound, and my companion (hi, Mom!) admitted to being wildly confused at some points in the play—not helped, I think, by the dual casting that underscores the production’s theme.
With that said, however, the adaptation still manages to be deeply affecting and beautifully portrayed. Shanésia Davis is a fierce and frightening Violet, conjuring pained shrieks and tears at the drop of a well-brimmed hat, and Warner Miller stuns as young Joe. (Also worth noting: The outstandingly outlandish Avery Whitted, who provides both chilling unreality and comic relief as Parrot.) And though the show was not a musical, per se, the occasional bits of song are stirringly sung. (Major props—pun entirely intended—to Center Stage, too, for the interactive instrument exhibit in the lobby.)
Overall, despite a few missed notes, Jazz is a more-than-worthy world premiere.