Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

A Jumping Off Point
Jungle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent review of The Guthrie's Henriad in Repertory:Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V

Gabriel Murphy, Vinecia Coleman,
and Ashanti Sakina Ford

Photo by Lauren B. Photography
A Jumping Off Point is a taut and well-written play by Inda Craig-Galván being given a near world premiere by Jungle Theatre under Shá Cage's clear-headed direction. I use the phrase "near world premiere" because A Jumping Off Point had its actual world premiere in a totally separate production just a couple of weeks ago, opening April 10 at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, where it is still running, before opening shop at the Jungle on April 20. Obviously, the show was well into rehearsals in Minneapolis before its world premiere engagement had opened and been reviewed, which strikes me as an uncommon scenario, though perhaps it reflects the profuse output of the playwright, who writes for both the theatre and for television.

The central character in A Jumping Off Point, Leslie (Vinecia Coleman), also writes for theatre and for television. After completing a graduate program in writing, she had a play produced in New York that was a hit and made Leslie "the next big thing." Her play was about the Black experience in the Mississippi delta, one of the stories of her people Leslie feels duty-bound, as an African American writer, to bring to life on stage and screen. It has been five years, and Leslie's hard work has paid off, for she is on the brink of a deal with HBO Max to be showrunner for a new series: it will be her series, and will provide her with a platform to bring those stories to a much larger audience than would see her work for the theatre.

Leslie is elated, but also tense, perhaps just due to her high-strung nature. It seems, though, there is something else, a second shoe that has never dropped and continues to trouble her. That errant shoe falls in the form of Andrew (Gabriel Murphy), one of her four fellow students in that graduate writing program. Leslie had no respect for Andrew: he was rarely prepared, never had original ideas, and didn't seem to know why he was even in a writing program. But now, five years later, he resurfaces, making a bitter charge against Leslie that can sink everything she has worked for.

Leslie and Andrew spar over competing claims: cultural appropriation and plagiarism. Back in school, Andrew, who is white, wrote an abysmal draft of a play based on a report he heard on National Public Radio about Black lives in the Mississippi Delta. The play was derided, as Andrew's work always was, but Leslie took his draft and transformed it into her triumphant breakthrough. Is she guilty of plagiarism for using his draft as her "jumping off point"? Is Andrew guilty of appropriating a story that was not his to tell? Over its ninety fast-paced minutes (without intermission), the play spins this confrontation and its aftermath in a manner that feels both appalling and completely believable.

A third character, Miriam (Ashwanti Sakina Ford), is Leslie's best friend and roommate, and acts as a go-between, trying to chip away at the entrenched positions between Leslie and Andrew. Miriam is as chill as Leslie is high-strung, able to cut through the forest and see the trees, and to do it with a smile. She also brings a welcome dose of humor to the play. At one point, after Leslie accuses Miriam of trying to make her out to be the bad guy, Miriam pushes back: "let's say there are no bad guys." It is an important key to how we might work through such dilemmas, which appear all the time in real life, but a key that Leslie is unwilling to turn.

If Craig-Galván based the play on her own experience–an interview she gave to The Washington Post published this month makes that seem quite likely–she does not give Leslie a pass, but holds her under scrutiny as much as she does Andrew. That is easy to do, for Leslie is not always entirely likeable, and while the faults she finds in Andrew appear to be legitimate, she is loathe to own up to her own faults and bad choices. Andrew, for his part, embodies guileless white privilege–no less offensive for its absence of guile.

The play makes some leaps that weaken its viability as a platform for presenting the competing cases: does Andrew really have to have been such a sad-sack character, adrift and clueless, and does Leslie have to be such a driven steam-roller without a reverse gear? It is not that the characters strain credulity–Craig-Galván created three authentic people for her play–but in posting Leslie and Andrew at the extremes, the serious issues between them are blurred by personality contrasts.

Still the play works, and Jungle Theater's production lifts it up even higher, owing to Cage's insightful direction, its cast of three excellent actors, and a nifty set designed by Daniel Allen. The set totally surprises us by shifting from the first scene set in a bland lecture hall, with the theater audience serving as the audience for the lecture, to a lived-in looking cramped apartment bathed in yellow and, later, a television writer's room demarcated by a ring of whiteboards.

Coleman superbly captures Leslie's fiery ambition and outrage at the way her people's stories (her words) have been usurped by white voices, and her ability to rationalize indiscretions that helped her to make progress toward seizing control of those stories. Coleman brings out Leslie's keen intelligence, but also a bitter edge in her nature that makes it impossible for her to see Andrew as anything but a manifestation of white privilege. Murphy conveys the effort it takes Andrew to face conflict and bring his charges to Leslie's doorstep, and shows us the slow but steady growth in Andrew's confidence as he fights for what he believes he deserves, even as he admits that he never had the drive that he saw in the other members of his writing cohort. Ford is a delight as the cheerful but deadly honest Miriam, whose chipper reaction to a pancake breakfast while Leslie and Andrew are on the brink of hostilities is precious fun. Also, the dynamic between Ford's Miriam and Coleman's Leslie is beautifully realized, creating the sense of a true and deep friendship.

In addition to Allen's set design, the costumes by China Bleu Simmons totally suit the characters, the lighting by Dante Benjegerdes draws focus to the mood of each scene, and the sound by C. Andrew Mayer clearly delivers the aural elements of the play. This last bit is especially effective in the paired opening and closing scenes, about which I will say no more, in the interest of avoiding spoilers. The play also offers a look into the intricate workings of a television show's writers' room, for those (me included) who have not had the opportunity.

The question of who has the right to tell whose stories remains a thorny one. I am Jewish, but does my suburban upbringing as a reform Jew make me qualified to write about a Chasidic community? Is being Black enough of a common denominator with the people of the Mississippi Delta to qualify Leslie to tell their story? In both cases, our commonalities give us a point of entry and reference, but is that enough to exclude those who bring other qualifications to the table? Within the play, a case is actually made to allow for this.

Is cultural appropriation ever reason enough to lift from the appropriator's work–to use it as a "jumping-off point"–without acknowledging the appropriator? One of Leslie's dictums, really, a response to her having to go along with a decision made above her head, is that "It's all fiction." When is that a release that enables creative freedom, and when is it an excuse for compromised authenticity? I don't presume to have answers, only to continue to ponder the questions raised in Inda Craig-Galván's thought-provoking and engrossing play.

A Jumping Off Point runs through May 19, 2024, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please visit

Playwright: Inda Craig-Galván; Director: Shá Cage; Set Design: Daniel Allen; Costume Design: China Bleu Simmons; Lighting Design: Dante Benjegerdes; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Props Design/ Stage Manager: John Novak; Assistant Director: Brettina Davis; Director/Dramaturg Youth Apprentice: iris Luz Hernandez; Technical Director: John Lutz; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.

Cast: Vinecia Coleman (Leslie Wallace), Ashwanti Sakina Ford (Miriam Forest), Gabriel Murphy (Andrew Littlefield).