Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Marin Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's review of Born Yesterday and Patrick's reviews of 110 in the Shade and Vanity Fair

Dane Troy, Tiffany Tenille, Michael Gene Sullivan,
C. Kelly Wright, Margo Hall, Paige Mayes, Lisa Lacy

Photo by Kevin Berne
"It's the music's fault," is the opinion of several of the characters in Jazz, a stage adaptation (by Nambi E. Kelley) of the Toni Morrison novel, now playing at the Marin Theatre Company. "The music" gets blamed for all sorts of naughtiness going on: from disobedience to sexual experimentation to infidelity to murder. "Just hearing it is like violating the law," one character says. Like jazz itself, Jazz the play has a loose, improvised feel: the lead is passed from player to player, themes are taken up and explored as each member of the band gets to express their take on the core structure of the piece. This shifting of perspective (as well as director Awoye Timpo's approach to the material) gives Jazz a dreamlike feel that can be both entrancing and disconcerting—close attention is required to keep track of shifting times, locations and points of view.

Yet even with an intense focus on the action, it's easy to get lost as the play jumps forward and backward in time, and from place to place. In addition, there are times when the same scenes play out more than once, but unlike other shows that use the same Rashomon style conceit (such as Jackie Sibblies Drury's Pulitzer Prize-winning Fairview), the repetition fails to illuminate different aspects of the story or to more completely reveal another character's point of view on the same action.

Jazz is set during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when some six million African Americans left the South to resettle in the Northeast, Midwest and West. As the play opens, mourners are gathering for the funeral of Dorcas (Dezi Solèy), a young woman shot down by her lover Joe Trace (Michael Gene Sullivan), a much older man—a much older, married man, whose wife Violet (C. Kelly Wright) shows up at the open casket funeral to defile the corpse with both words and the blade of her knife. The rest of the play takes us back to various points in the lives of these characters to illustrate how things got to this point.

As one might expect, the challenges confronting these characters were legion. Beyond the inherent racism and segregation of the country at that time, they face poverty, the painful labor of picking cotton, theft of their land, cruelty at the hands of a mob, police brutality (when Dorcas is shot, the crime is not reported because, as Violet says, "Everything I know about negro life and the police made it impossible to consider."), and the upheaval of a move from rural Virginia to Harlem where Joe is uncomfortable among all the "piled up buildings."

After Dorcas is shot, Violet becomes obsessed with the young woman who stole the affections of her husband. She visits Dorcas's Aunt Manfred (the ever-excellent Margo Hall), who had become the girl's guardian after the death of her parents, returning over and over seeking answers to questions she doesn't even know how to ask. When Aunt Manfred gives Violet a framed photo of Dorcas, Violet hangs it on the wall of her home—and the girl appears (behind a scrim) and becomes a (mostly) silent target of Violet's rage. Aunt Manfred and Violet establish an odd rapprochement, a relationship based in shared grief and a willingness to be true with each other, when both have been the victim of much lying and deceit.

This production of Jazz is enlivened by an original score by Bay Area composer Marcus Shelby. Music is almost ever-present: jazz, of course, but also blues, gospel, spirituals, and work songs. It suffuses the play and helps to establish time, place and mood.

But a little more establishment of time, place and mood would go a long way toward helping the power of Morrison's tragic yet redemptive story to come through. Although scenic designer Kimie Nishikawa's set is elegant, and beautifully lit by Jeff Rowlings, it's a little too spare to adequately define the various locations. While the flowers that seem to surround the (implied) casket where Dorcas rests become a cotton field where the workers labor, and the scrim upstage behind which the deceased Dorcas sits, captured forever in a photograph makes a lovely effect, the set is less successful at communicating the energy, bustle, and density of Harlem in the 1920s.

Jazz is powerfully performed by an excellent cast. Paige Mayes is especially compelling as both Golden Gray, a mixed-race man who may or may not be related to Joe, and a parrot Joe brings as a present for Violet. Her avian physicality is delightful to watch—and she's aided in her characterization by a colorful costume from designer Karen Perry.

The story is rich, and adaptor Nambi E. Kelley has managed to compress most of the action of the novel into a tight 100 or so minutes. But with the level of heartache and the depth of the source material, Jazz might be well served by expanding the story a bit, giving it room to breathe and to better establish how the scenes and characters relate to each other.

Jazz, through May 19, 2019, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30pm, with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. There is an additional "Perspectives" matinee on May 9 at 1:00pm. Tickets range from $25-$70, and are available at, or by calling the box office at 415-388-5208.