Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Black Theatre Troupe

Also see Gil's reviews of The Boy Who Loved Monsters and the Girl Who Loved Peas, A Celebration of Harold Pinter and Blockbuster Broadway

David Hemphill
Successful jazz composer Billy Strayhorn would have turned 100 this year and, in tribute, Black Theatre Troupe is presenting the world premiere of a play centered on Strayhorn and his music. Conviction focuses on a convict named Johnny who performs a concert of Strayhorn songs for his fellow inmates. While not a completely successful play, it does feature a very good performance by Black Theatre Troupe Artistic Director David Hemphill as Johnny and an extremely talented quintet performing Strayhorn's songs. With a premise that touches upon interesting topics and over a dozen of Strayhorn's tunes, with a few tweaks I believe this play could have quite a life.

Phoenix playwright Ben Tyler's one-man play follows gay inmate Johnny. We learn he was once a professional jazz singer who, like Strayhorn, worked with Duke Ellington. After being in prison for 27 years for a crime we won't find out the details about until the end of the play, he is now up for parole. He shares his fascination with Strayhorn with his captive prison audience during a performance for them that he calls "Johnny's Homage to Billy Strayhorn for the Well-Behaved." Tyler interweaves Johnny's commentary on his and Strayhorn's past around some well placed Strayhorn tunes as he jokes and sings for his audience. While full of humor, there are plenty of serious moments, including some evocative flashbacks of Johnny in solitary.

Tyler's idea to combine a more modern gay man's troubled life with the openly gay and unapologetic Strayhorn's is effective. We get a strong sense of both of their lives with the facts that Johnny introduces about Strayhorn not seeming like items from Wikipedia tossed haphazardly into a play. The similarities and contrasts that Johnny makes between their two lives are delivered with a deep sense of feeling, compassion and a hint of regret, which works perfectly with the songs, as many of Strayhorn's lyrics touch upon similar themes. The play on words of the title of the piece is also quite effective. However, there are several loose ends, moments of confusion that need clarity, and some running gags that wear thin. For example, the opening scene and the transitions between Johnny's show, the flashbacks, and the scenes in solitary need improvement, as at times it seems like the whole concert might just be a dream that Johnny is having while he's in solitary, which I don't believe is Tyler's intent. The comical running gags about packages of ramen noodles being the main source of cash in the prison wears a bit thin, especially when a cooking segment is presented with Johnny wearing a frilly apron. However, there are some effective dramatic touches, with Hemphill evoking a deep conviction of his own in his portrayal, especially in the emotionally charged parole board speech we witness as well as the moment when we discover exactly what it was that put Johnny behind bars.

Hemphill has a fine singing voice and gets across some Strayhorn classics like "Satin Doll" and "Lush Life" with an exceptional quintet backing him up. Johnny tells us that "Strayhorn was the Mozart of jazz," and in the range of compositions that are heard in the play, it's easy to see why that comparison has been stated. A few of Strayhorn's instrumental numbers like "Take the 'A' Train" are also present in the show, and the quintet led by Jimmy Boyd is simply sensational, with some impressive arrangements and trumpet playing from Joey Leyva.

Conviction wants to be a tribute and homage to Strayhorn, Johnny, and others who struggle with fitting in to society while having no regrets at the conviction they have in doing so, and is somewhat successful in its goal. With a fine performance by Hemphill and a smoking quintet, the Black Theatre Troupe production is a fine piece of theatre, but I hope Tyler continues to work on the drama to clean up some of the shortcomings.

The Black Theatre Troupe production of Conviction runs through February 27, 2015, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 602 258-8129

Written by Ben Tyler
Directed by Anthony Runfola
Scenic Design: Thom Gilseth
Lighting Design: Jeff Davis
Costume, Hair and Make-Up Design: Mario Garcia
Music Supervision and Arrangements: Joey Leyva
Sound Design: Cliff Williams
Technical Director: Joel Birch
Stage Manager: Layne Racowsky

Photo: Laura Durant

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix

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