A kinetic premiere of 'Jazz' at Baltimore Center Stage

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The best plays tell us something new, while reminding us of things we already know — or think we know.

By that reckoning, Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel “Jazz,” which has received a kinetic world premiere at Baltimore Center Stage, is every bit a significant play.

Morrison created vivid characters and placed them in the vibrant Harlem of the 1920s, where opportunities and temptations bumped hard against each other. Those characters, never entirely free from memories of the brutish, racist places they came from, seem ever in search of some inner fulfillment.

Part of the book’s power comes from the distinctive edges applied to the not unfamiliar elements in the central tale of love, lust and loss — a middle-age husband seeking the comfort of a woman young enough to be his daughter; a wife struggling to understand the betrayal.

In adapting the novel, Kelley does a commendable job retaining the thrust of the story, while also preserving the mix of down-to-earth and poetic language that gives “Jazz” its rich flavor.

This condensed version of the book lasts a brisk 90 minutes. I wouldn’t mind another 10 or 15; the extra time might provide room for more clarity of plot, depth of character, exploration of motives and choices.

Still, the play’s structure, built on multiple flashbacks, holds together firmly enough and the cumulative emotional payoff is considerable.

Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah fluently guides a first-rate cast (costumed in perfect style by David Burdick) through a minimal, yet fully atmospheric, stage designed by Tim Mackabee.

At the center of “Jazz” is Violet (Shanesia Davis), whose marriage to salesman Joe Trace (Leon Addison Brown) holds steady until he notices the disarming Dorcas (Jasmine Batchelor) in the neighborhood. “I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it,” Joe says. He rises in anger, later, when Dorcas ends their affair.

“Jazz” is an extended riff on Violet’s reaction to the fatal end of her husband’s dalliance. After performing an odious act at the funeral for Dorcas, Violet finds herself at the door of Dorcas’s aunt, Alice Manfred (Michele Shay).

As all of this comes into focus, so does the back story of how Violet “claimed” Joe Trace after he had “practically fallen in [her] lap,” and why the couple moved from the South to the promise of New York. The others we meet in Harlem have their own pasts, and how those experiences connect produces the deeper undertones of “Jazz.”

Her face communicating volumes at every turn, Davis delivers an incisive portrayal of Violet, conveying the woman’s desperation to fill more than one void in her life.

Brown likewise achieves exceptional eloquence as Joe Trace, a man who doesn’t “drink, smoke, gamble, or tithe,” but finds himself rationalizing another, even rockier path. The actor’s layered performance makes every shift in Joe’s center of gravity palpable.

As Dorcas, Batchelor does winning work, revealing the character’s alternately immature and knowing ways.

Shay shines as Alice, whether improvising a litany of the evils of jazz (“Just hearing it is like violating the law”) or dispensing the wisdom that can come with age and regret. In one of the play’s most affecting scenes — when the on-her-guard Alice notices that Violet’s dress needs mending — Shay is a quiet marvel.

There are telling contributions all around, especially from Warner Miller, whose high-wattage smile animates the role of Young Joe in flashbacks; and Avery Whitted, who makes the most of the fanciful role of Violet’s pet parrot (the device could easily wear thin, but doesn't) and brings a fine singing voice to the production, too.

Composer Kathryn Bostic has supplied an instrumental score that complements the action effectively. A recurring theme in 5/4 time seems a kind of sonic metaphor for lives going out of step with the norm as they intersect in a challenging, fast-moving world.

If you go

“Jazz” runs through June 25 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $22 to $74. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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