Thursday, April 15, 2010

...And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi by Marcus Gardley at Cuttingball Theatre through next week

I have been trying to get to Marcus Gardley's play currently extended at Cuttingball Theater at Exit on Taylor for over a month...or at least it feels that way. Finally, I got to see it, and not a day too late. Imagine how timely its debut in the San Francisco Bay Area--its run coinciding with the anniversary date start of the Civil War, April 12, 1861, which ended June 2,1865. The play has to close April 25, 2010, so get your tickets.

What one notices immediately is Miss Ssippi(actress Nicole C. Julien) and her chorus who protect and guide and shelter those who find refuge along her banks. The river is a huge presence and in Julien and her entourage, actresses: Rebecca Frank, Halili Knox, and Erica Richardson, Miss Ssippi is both the conscious and moral thermometer of the play.

When Damascus (actor Myers Clark) is shot and finds himself almost drowned in her waters she saves him the way Yemanja lovingly eased the passage of so many Africans along the triangular slave trafficking route. Her blue garments and lyrical voice ... singing, chanting, praising, even fussing, reminds me of the goddess of the sea: Yemaja, also a river in West Africa in Yorubaland.

The characters are mythical and epic in size. It's amazing that more than one fits on the stage together, let alone the entire cast at the beginning when the song begins and at the conclusion of the journey when Miss Ssippi invites us to sing along.

The story is an American one--what happens when the enslaved and the slave master love one another? What happens when for whatever reason, two children by one father, two women, are raised as one: twins? Reminds one of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and to a certain extent As You Like It as performed by the African American Shakespeare Company, cast in the antebellum south.

The metaphors are numerous, none more so than this "Jesus" (actor David Westley Skillman) character who of course moonwalks on the Mississippi because in this resurrection story its Vicksburg and he's very much alive. He's just grooving. Westley is also cast as "The Great Tree" whose limbs the KKK string "Damascus" from.

So there is this major battle, May 22, 1863 where the Union Army try to take the Confederate stronghold. Vicksburg, MS, is halfway between Memphis in the north and New Orleans to the south. It was an ideal strategy to cut the Confederacy in half and take control of the Mississippi river, which eventually happened but not without many losses on the Union side and the Confederacy surrender July 3 in the Battle of Gettysburg.

The families left behind, in Moonwalk, Blanche Verse (Free Girl's half-sister, actress Sarah Mitchell)and Cadence Marie Verse (the girls mother, actress Jeanette Harrison) spoke often of hunger and this indeed was key to the end of the war--starvation. However, in Jesus Moonwalks ... Gardley is more concerned with relationships or the juxtaposition of relationships: What if, a slave mistress adopts a black child and raises her as her own? What if, two defectors meet, one Confederate, the other Union, and they start to dance? What if, the "House Negro" takes over the plantation? Why if, Jesus really can moonwalk?

Jesus doesn't just moon walk; Jesus talks ... he saves a little girl who doesn't know who she is; he intercedes or calms the waters when they threaten to drown her ... he helps her remember her song.

With characters whose names sing like poetry and bring to mind ancient rites and the cycle of life, like seasons which come whether we want them, anticipate their arrival or await their departure on the river which alternately carries tales and people.

Miss Ssippi the conscious of those along its banks sets the rhythm of her people's lives, like a clock or pacemaker... she's the gravity that keeps it all together. She holds their lives in place like another holds sky: stars, rocks, trees, people --all vital elements which decorate the stage and Free Girl's quilt.

Blanche Verse, white verse or blank verse? Cadence Verse... cadence as in the rhythm. Brer Bit -- Brer Rabbit, Elegua or the Trickster ... actor Martin F. Grizzell, Jr. speaks in riddles and is plotting to turn the white house black. Yankee Pot Roast and Jean Verse. Free's mother's name is "Poem." Damascus is biblical like Jesus and was the capital of the modern country Syria, a city known as the pearl of the East.

Then we have cross dressing ghosts. It's bigger than Cinderella. Damascus as Demeter doesn't just lose a slipper, if he slips he loses his life. Like the biblical story where Jesus is crucified, Damascus also has three days to work his miracle, that is, to find his daughter "Poem" and give her her song (before his walk on the plank).

Jesus Moonwalks chronicles that journey and like all trips, one has a map or plans but circumstances get in the way and one has to keep one's focus yet stay open to change. This is how Damascus as the woman, Demeter reaches his/her destination. This is how the playwright's great grandfather freed himself from slavery traveling north from Louisiana dressed as a woman. Jefferson Davis wasn't as lucky when he donned his wife's hoop skirt after conspiring in Lincoln's assassination. (There is a reward notice for Davis and five other co-conspirators in the program.)

A quilt is another character in Jesus Moonwalks-- it represents the completion of the story when the pieces are finally joined all the holes closed. There are questions such as, why did the white mistress raise this black child as her own, once she knew the child was black? Why did she hid her black daughter by having her wear make-up to cover her dark skin? What happened to "Poem," did she really die of a broken heart? How did the two girls, sisters continue to live their lives as sisters in a land where black and white were enemies not friends, let alone acknowledged kin?

It is here that the story sounds like echoes of the playwright's imaginary friend who saw Jesus moonwalk. In San Francisco Bay Area in 2010 okay, biracial children do have mothers/fathers who are white, but this is not 2010, it's 1861. While not quite Sally Hemings revisited, the Thomas Jefferson story comes to mind just because Jean Verse (actor David Sinaiko) says he is returning home because he missed Poem and wants to divorce his wife and live with his slave. He writes as much in a note, his daughter, not wife, reads.

Nothing changes between the two girls, although the Verse sister tries to keep Free Girl blind to her identity because she thinks once she knows she is black and her mother is the woman "Poem," things might change between them--it doesn't when Demeter tells his granddaughter to wash off the powder and look at herself in the mirror, and Free Girl sings her song and remembers who she is and who her people are... which includes the Verse family especially her sister.

The world the Verses, Free Girl, Brer Bit live in has crumbled by the end of the play. The white house is blackened, and what they once had all is gone except the quilt which Free wears around her shoulders.

Cuttingball Theater is at the Exit Theater on Taylor, 277 Taylor, in San Francisco, walking distance from Powell Street BART, across the street from Glide Memorial Church. For information visit


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