Playwright Nambi E. Kelley talks about preparing for the world premiere of a play based on Toni Morrison's "Jazz." (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
In the first paragraph of "Jazz," the 1992 novel by Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison set in 1920s Harlem, a narrator lays out the bare facts of the plot — how a husband "fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going."
We learn, too, that when the man's wife "went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church."
What follows is a textured process of filling in details, exploring emotions. All the while, there's a shifting and layering of perspectives as various voices take over the story — a story as rich in riffs and nuances as an extended improvisation by great jazz musicians.
This narrative has now moved from the page to the stage. Nambi E. Kelley's adaptation of Morrison's book will receive its world premiere May 26 at Baltimore Center Stage with a cast of nine, directed by company artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah.
"I'm really attracted to the melody, the lyricism of the book, its way of looking at who are we and where we come from," Kwei-Armah says. "There has been a lot of talk about the science of genetic memory. I think what Toni Morrison has done is create beautiful ancestral memory in a very organic fashion. She has created three-dimensional — I would even say four- and five-dimensional characters."
The first time Center Stage expected to present those characters and their dimensions in a theatrical vehicle was during the 2011-2012 season, when a version of "Jazz" adapted by playwright/director Marion McClinton was initially listed on the lineup.
That choice was made about a year before Kwei-Armah took the company's helm. Shortly after starting his tenure, he attended a workshop for McClinton's piece.
"The script wasn't ready," Kwei-Armah says. "Canceling that production was one of the hardest decisions I made."
Although this first attempt at adapting "Jazz" did not pan out, there still was interest in the concept in the theater world. Enter Kelley.
In addition to being a prolific playwright, Kelley earned plaudits for her adaptation of Richard Wright's 1940 novel "Native Son," premiered by American Blues Theater and Court Theatre in Chicago in 2014. The success of that venture led to Kelley receiving an offer from Morrison's representatives to adapt "Jazz."
Kelley is also a busy actress — she was on a recent episode of NBC's "Chicago Justice" — and it was the prospect of an acting job that first connected her to Center Stage. She auditioned for the company's all-female production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" in 2014.
"I was thinking, 'Where's my callback?' I got a little haughty," Kelley says with a laugh. "Gavin Witt [associate director/director of dramaturgy at Center Stage] started asking me about my writing, not my acting. I had an attitude. So I told him, 'Toni Morrison just contacted me.'"
Kelley did not get a part in "Twelfth Night," but she did hear from the company again.
"Two days later, Kwame Facebooked me," Kelley says. "He told me he really wanted to do 'Jazz.' Because of the history Center Stage had with the book, I thought it was important to bring it here."
Although arrangements were soon made to secure the world premiere for Baltimore, the rest of the project has not been exactly effortless.
"It's been a heavy lift," Kwei-Armah says. "I've been wrestling all the way through rehearsals. This is not a linear story. So, directorially, it falls on me to bring clarity to it, to make sure we can follow it."
In the months leading up to rehearsals, Kelley went through dozens of drafts, trying out various ways of organizing the material, deciding on which characters and incidents from the novel to include.
The key figures from the book remain in the play — Joe Trace, the cosmetics salesman who falls for the much younger Dorcas; and Joe's wife, the beautician Violet.
"I'm a Toni Morrison fan, but I didn't know 'Jazz' at all," Kelley says. "When I started this, I read it a few times, letting the story speak to me. I realized Violet was my strongest connection with the book."
In the weeks of rehearsal leading up the first preview performances, Kelley continued to rewrite and revise the script daily.
"I have to stop giving these actors changes," she says. "I feel terrible about that. But I've been blown away by their flexibility and generosity."
"Jazz" has ended up a one-act, roughly 90-minute play. Kelley structured the piece into what she describes as five "sets" — an introduction; a set each for Violet, Joe Trace and Dorcas; and a coda.
"Toni's writing is so beautiful," Kelley says. "It was important to me to keep that voice. My job is to be a servant of the book. There are bits and pieces of me in the play, but most of the text is hers."
Morrison's poetic language and the novel's evocation of the Jazz Age in New York could easily have taken the adaptation project into the realm of musical theater.
"I do worry," Kwei-Armah says, "that people will see the title 'Jazz' and halfway through go, 'Where's the music?' It's not a musical, but I imagine someday a musical version might be created."
There is original music in the play, however, used primarily for underscoring, as in movies. The composer is Kathryn Bostic, whose film score credits include 2014's "Dear White People."
For Kelley, the title "Jazz" stands for the book's structure, the way its themes are developed.
"The metaphor is much richer than hearing jazz," she says. "But we do have dance in the play. To me, what resonates in the book is the dance of life. How we live side by side with tragedy. How something happens and takes us in another direction."
The cast for "Jazz" has done a lot of dancing unrelated to the play. Kwei-Armah opens each rehearsal with a mini-dance party to give the actors time to loosen up before plunging into the pressures of preparing a world premiere — and digesting each burst of freshly penned dialogue.
"You have to think with every part of your brain," says Shanesia Davis, who portrays Violet. "It's emotional acrobatics for everyone."
Davis is a longtime Morrison fan, an admiration that started when she read the 1987 novel "Beloved."
"But after reading 'Jazz' the first time, I thought, what? It took me a year and half to get it," Davis says. "I see this as a love story of two people who come back together and realize how to love again after a tragedy. "
Jasmine Batchelor, who plays Dorcas, picks up on that point.
"Right now, we really need a love story," she says. "I'm not reducing 'Jazz' to just that. But given the state of the union, our country needs more love. Even though the love in this play comes with passion and jealousy, it's still love."
While working his way into the role of Joe Trace, Leon Addison Brown also focused on the issue of love.
"He's hunting for this elusive thing," Brown says. "He's not just asking where is love, but also when you find it and hold it, what do you do with it?"
There are more questions for the vivid characters in "Jazz" as they struggle with dreams, passions and disillusionment. Their concerns are hardly confined to Harlem in 1926.
"If we have done our jobs, people will find a lot of things in this play that will speak to them," Brown says, "even after they leave the theater."
If you go
"Jazz" opens May 26 (after preview performances May 19-25), and runs to June 25 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $22 to $74. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.