"Jazz" isn't a musical, but it couldn't exist without music. Center Stage's current production, the world premiere of an adaptation of the novel by Toni Morrison, is the product of close collaboration between playwright Nambi E. Kelley and creative director Kwame Kwei-Armah. They give us a taste of synesthesia—voice as jazz, jazz as language.
The stage is first set with a pair of vases, each holding a flower bouquet. A coffin rises up between the vases and people rush out to surround it. There's a young woman in the coffin, Dorcas (played by Jasmine Batchelor), and an older one, Violet (Shanésia Davis), who throws herself beside it. Violet is screaming at the dead girl—Dorcas, who was light like "cream at the top of the milk pail," "someone who glides over to the kitchen sink so they can wash the fork you gave them."
Then Dorcas jumps out of her coffin, wearing a silver dress and dancing shoes, and the funeral becomes a dance hall, somewhere in roaring '20s Harlem, jazz doing what it does, everything motion, sex, brass—until an older man (Joe, played by Leon Addison Brown) stalks onto the sage, pulls out a gun, and shoots Dorcas. She falls.
Fortunately, this isn't a play that relies on song breaks to maintain rhythm or verve. Jazz, or "the intention of jazz" is, as Kelley puts it, "the organizing principle for the material," and she and the director and the cast honor that—but you aren't bludgeoned over the head about any of it.
The narrative does skip forward and back from that moment when Dorcas is killed, and this movement, the pressure and swing, has a musical quality to it.
We see a much younger Joe and Violet (Warren Miller and Jasmine Carmichael) meet one another in rural Virginia. Joe was sleeping in a tree; Violet stays up all night talking to him. They decide to marry and move to Baltimore (aye). On the train north, Joe stumbles, and Violet smiles and says, "Joe, it looks like you're dancing."
And we see the older Violet, in Harlem, begging Dorcas' aunt, Alice (Michele Shay), to let her into the apartment of the girl her husband killed. "It's the music's fault," Alice says. "This music makes you do wild things."
Does the play move like jazz? Not really. You get the sense that Kwei-Armah and Kelley are more interested in doing with the tools of the theater what jazz players do with the instruments themselves—arrange and manipulate them in a way that articulates feeling.
A particular achievement of this is the way the production allows Toni Morrison’s language to breathe through. With a writer as imposing as Morrison, it would be easy to let the original novel overpower the script and reduce the staging to a sort of echo chamber for the Major American Novelist. Instead, Kelley and Kwei-Armah allow the full force of Morrison's voice to resonate by making her language part of the music of the play (not the literal music, but the soul of it, its animating spirit).
Violet promises herself that she'll never have children, and throughout, repeats to herself her aunt's contraceptive formula: "Salt, soap, and castor oil." She and Joe use salt, soap, and castor oil. They never do have kids; they grow old. Joe, lying in their bed, says, "I miss that feeling. We used to have that feeling." Eventually he begins to have an affair with Dorcas. "I didn't fall in love," Joe remembers. "I rose in it."
One device of good jazz is the possibility for certain moments to contract while others expand—the ones that grow are usually where something enchanting can happen. Morrison's novel spans several generations and nearly a century back and forth between Virginia, Maryland, and New York, which is a lot to process in the play's single act. Future iterations may do well to dial back from the original narrative scale, or to expand the script to accommodate it.
So there's some ambient fuzz, but "Jazz" still allows space for moments to grow, and they do. At the center of it all is a story about a woman trying to understand how the man she loves fell in love with another woman. Violet and Joe were in love, and then Joe fell in love with Dorcas—or, as he said, rose in it. Rose to the point that he was willing to leave Violet for Dorcas, and eventually to the point where, when Dorcas abandoned him, he killed her for it.
Violet believes that Joe chose Dorcas because she was a younger and lighter-skinned version of herself. She obsesses over the physical evidence of who the girl was to her husband—what kind of hair products she used, how often she had her ends clipped.
Shanésia Davis' performance makes clear that these little physical obsessions are what happen when a body tries to deal with the terms on which it's been violated. In a haunting monologue/scream to Dorcas' specter, she asks her, "Did he take you to Indigo on Saturday nights and sit way back and drink gin with that sweet red stuff that made it taste like soda pop, which was the only part you were even supposed to drink?" (By the way, try to yell all that in a single breath.)
But Joe and Dorcas' affair wasn't just about him finding a younger version of Violet. He has his own scars—from his mother, who left him when he was young, and maybe too from the child he never had, a child that could've been right around Dorcas' age when he killed her. Dorcas, for her part, never knew her parents—they were killed in a race riot—and Joe was a man who showed her kindness and affection, which she eventually realized should never have been placed on her.
Each of the three finally misunderstands the others, and is unable to explain to them what they don't already comprehend. There's a huge imbalance in the sorts of damage they do to one another (you can't kill someone, even if they break your heart), but the degree of that imbalance doesn't seem to be the point here. It's more about the arrangement of it, the sore harmony of that distance. And there's your jazz.
"Jazz" continues at Baltimore Center Stage through June 25.