Straight, No Chaser: Single Carrot's 'Something Like Jazz Music' goes dark in the '20s

One of the first performances of "Something Like Jazz Music" coincided with Single Carrot Theatre's decadent fundraising gala, The Carrot Club. Keeping with the setting of the play in Prohibition-era Baltimore, the attendees—mostly older white folks—arrived dressed to the nines in beaded fringe dresses and fedoras, sipped handcrafted cocktails, and bid on auction items before taking their seats in the mostly bare theater. An hour and change later, they'd see a man devolve into a violent Klan member.

Conceived by the ensemble, written by Genevieve de Mahy, and directed by Alix Fenhagen and Steven Krigel, Single Carrot's newest play does not attempt to mask or silo off the ugliest threads in history with glamour of the 1920's. "Something Like Jazz Music" is a shuffled cluster of vignettes, blended to erase the lines between flapper charm, sexism, and racial violence—a fury that begins with the unveiling of misplaced luggage in a modern-day Baltimore warehouse.

The play opens with the jumpsuit-clad cast marching around the space as they mime lifting and passing invisible packages to the rhythm of industrial rattling. Better executed, the robotic choreography might suggest the passing (or rewinding) of time like the gears in a clock, or highlight the distinctly different energies of the roaring '20s and today, but here it just sets the play off on an silly note. Thankfully it doesn't last long, and from then on the appropriately slapstick movement and Rebecca Free's swinging choreography feels seamless. But the play's premise is kind of goofy, too: upon discovering the luggage, the workers pull out the encased items—mostly clothes, plus some blackface paraphernalia—and put them on to find themselves magically transported almost a century back in time.

Liquor flowed freely in Baltimore during Prohibition. Maryland was the only state to look the other way when the Volstead Act was ratified, thanks to Governor Albert C. Ritchie, and it played a major role in rallying other states to refuse enforcement of the law, leading to the demise of Prohibition altogether. Still, Marylanders bootlegged, as the Chesapeake Bay offered a route for booze to be smuggled. The Owl Bar in the Belvedere Hotel is our most beloved remnant of speakeasy history. So Baltimore offers a unique history here; specifically, the drunkest one. Single Carrot just grazes this: breaking from a scene in a jazz club, Lauren Saunders' modern-day character offers a readers digest version of Maryland prohibition history.

It's not clear if the warehouse employees are consciously performing as they dance to loud jazz, fire guns, tend to a rose garden, and attack a black man at a Klan rally—or if they are consumed by the spirits of the dead whose belongings they're rummaging through. Different moments suggest both possibilities: at one point, the workers break in and out of a scene in a jazz club to argue over who gets to "play" the club owner; at another moment Paul Diem's character spews racist garbage, apparently unable to separate his own autonomy from the owner of the unearthed Klan hood—or so he claims. The play peeks into the lives of Klansmen, bootleggers, a detective, a woman giddy over the prospect of posing as a man at a dance, a housewife unraveling over her distant husband's infidelity, and, among other characters, a young black writer with a penchant for quoting Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Dubois.

The cast is universally strong, from Single Carrot's mainstay ensemble members Diem, Saunders, and Dustin C.T. Morris, to guest actors Christopher Dews, Samuel Dumarque Wright, and Nancy Linden (Morris and Dews also had a hand in devising the play). Playing a flirtatious flapper or puppeteering a coat around her arm to create her own faceless dance partner, Saunders performs like an entertainer of the era; likewise, Dews skillfully exercises a range of cartoonish voices as he shifts from one character to another. Those shifts, as well as the rapid and frequent transitions in time, sweep through with the help of co-director Krigel's outstanding sound design, flushing the space with muffled horns, warehouse clatter, and the rumble of a dance floor.

The play is incredibly fast-paced, to a nearly exhausting degree. Though the narrative of history is inherently broken, obscured, and incomplete, and any reflection of it must therefore be inconclusive, "Something Like Jazz Music" leaves too many questions unanswered. This has to do with the broad focus, or lack thereof: the story tries to touch on crime, sexism, mental illness, white supremacy, and more in 90 minutes. There's no space to meditate on the sheer brutality.

Still, presenting these things as bubbling from the beneath the alluring smoke of the jazz age, Single Carrot begins to form an important dialogue on the relationship of the past to the present and the power of artifacts (although, here, that power is interpreted a bit too literally). It's a strange relief—albeit an uncomfortable one—to see a typically hyper-glamorized and historically revised decade in our history, too often reduced to a party theme, presented not for what it was (is that even possible?) but as a handful of moments and impressions with no intention to flatter our past or to comfort the audience.

"Something Like Jazz Music" runs through March 27 at Single Carrot Theatre. For more information, visit singlecarrot.com.

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