Friday, April 23, 2010

And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi reviewed

...And Jesus Moonwalks on the Mississippi a new play by Marcus Gardley, directed by Amy Muller, currently in an extended run at Cuttingball Theatre is what one might call a Sally Hemings San Francisco Bay Area story, except in this story the white slave mistress raises her husband’s child with slave as her own. The child’s name is “Free Girl.”

First seen about two-three years ago as a part of Bay Area Playwright’s Festival, Marcus Gardley, wunderkind talent…a superb writer whose geographical landscape is Oakland, tells a story his grandmother told him. Jesus was set in the south in a black church at a time when these houses of the lord were going up in smoke. I was put in mind of an installation at YBCA where an artist used the charred remains of a church or maybe churches, this included a burned bible. The pieces were hung in such a way to invoke a building –the string transparent. I think I later saw this same work at the deYoung Museum.

I really liked the earlier work and between the current completed work –there was a draft I missed, so I was kind of surprised at Moonwalks complete revision. I don’t think the river was present in the play I saw, but I know the work one sees at BAPF is a work in progress so I know things change and Gardley is a writer whose work changes and shifts along its path to completion.

Jesus Moonwalks is poetic and rich and textured as one can expect from a Gardley work, his characters multidimensional and as perplexing as ever. I really like the river and I love Jesus. The other folks: Damascus/Demeter, the father who is looking to find his daughter “Poem” to give her her song and instead finds his granddaughter “Free Girl” who knows the song, but doesn’t know who she is; to the slave master, “Jean Verse” who loves “Free Girl’s” mother. Then there is the mistress’s child, “Blanche Verse,” Free Girl’s half sister and the mistress herself, “Cadence Marie Verse” who some say killed Free Girl’s mother, “Poem,” some say not, and the trickster house servant, Brer Bit, and the Union soldier, Yankee Pot Roast.

The action takes place at a pivotal time during the Civil War at the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, May 22 1863 and May 25, 1865 at Proctorville, Louisiana. The women and children are at home starving while their husbands are out saving their Confederate nation. Actress Jeanette Harrison’s “Cadence Marie Verse” (the mistress of the plantation and the Blanche’s birth mother) acts crazy, but she is really sane. The two girls: Blanche Verse and Free Girl, both seven, are said to be twins, both born the same day or year, to two different women. I found it difficult to believe that the white woman would raise a black child as her own, even if asked, but she did.

I found out later that she didn’t know the child was her husband’s illegitimate child by a slave woman. Though later she might have suspected as the child favored her mother.

Actress Erika A. McCrary’s “Free Girl,” isn’t encouraged to think too much about her brown skin, covered as it is with powder, or think too much about how different she and her sister “Blanche” look. She is white period and her sister who is told they are twins believes this as well, a belief played really convincingly by actress Sarah Mitchell. Jesus Moonwalks certainly calls to question the notion of race as illusion, color the biggest illusion of all.

Okay so while the kids and their mom are starving –the house Negro, Brer Bit (actor Martin F. Grizzell, Jr.) is scheming on how to gain control of the mansion and paint the white house black. The husband has left the army, deserted and is returning home when he meets another deserter, from the Union side and captures him and makes him his slave.

Bondage … I guess if one owns another human being, it’s nothing to enslave another. Damascus—Poem’s father, Free Girls’s grandfather is saved from drowning by Miss Ssippi and then white men hang him, but Jesus or the spirit of the tree (maybe both) save him—well he dies but he is given three days as a woman, Demeter to accomplish his task.

Demeter meets Miss Ssippi again and this time refuses her help. Even so the beneficence and unconditional love this powerful water spirit, Miss Ssippi or Yemeja has for black people and the role she plays in the deliverance of black people from the hardships of slavery is evident. She cushions the falls of so many of our people.

Yes, at times the play is confusing even with the great program notes the dramaturg Nakissa Etemad shares. I don’t know if reading them in advance helps much. I think a tutorial might be required (smile).

The one thing one can be certain of is a father’s love for his daughter. Damascus/Demeter loves “Poem” so much he walks the length of the Mississippi and even defies death just so he can find her and make sure she has what she needs to save herself, and that is her history present in the song he leaves to her. Actor Myers Clark’s “Damascus/Demeter” cannot rest in peace until he finds his girl even if that means in his current form she might not recognize him. Damascus is now Demeter, a woman.

The analogy: going to hell and back is apropos here.

Spirit is clearly working in this blackman life and that of his kin. It is the only thing saving them and by extension those they love. Free Girl loves Jesus whom only she can see, Jesus with long locs and black skin.

Heard the expression, “God works in mysterious ways?” Well in Moonwalks he really does.

The third aspect of this story is the sanitation of rape and its resulting progeny. It is not a case of mixed race or intentional miscegenation here. The master and his property cannot love one another … it is not possible logically even if on stage and in books it is. I am just not with all this white and black together in slavery transposed to the twenty-first century. When Amy Muller, the director, in her statement talks about her being the mother of two black sons, I am distracted. Okay, so what? She does a great job directly a play which sounds complicated here, yet, it not so complicated on stage, which is no easy feat.

Her relationship to the material has nothing to do with the characters in the play in 1863 and 1865. Cadence Marie Verse is not happy that her husband has a child with their slave, when she allows herself to think about it. She stays drunk and angry and mean. She is a wildcard one can’t really trust. In the end, one still doesn’t know what to believe.

On stage and within the pages of a book one can create a world that lives in one’s fantasy, but the reality is not as pretty now, certainly not 200 years ago when one thinks about mixed race kids and their parents. More often than not, they were not claimed by their white fathers, certainly not adopted by white stepmothers.

Look at the insulting caricatures President Obama’s campaign and second year in office has met on the covers of major magazines and newspapers and his white mother really is his biological mother and she didn’t hide his heritage behind make-up.

Marcus Gardley known for his surrealism and magical realism plays with such concepts as race, family, war, love, peace, and justice, in this play, yet unlike previous plays or landscapes where this tangible meets intangible worked, the lines between the harshness of antebellum south at a time when so many people died because black people were not seen in the same light as white people, just doesn’t ring true. Where does the softness come from in a Cadence Marie Verse, who can raise a black girl as her own child, yet kill her mother?

It is too simplistic, the ending—two children playing with a quilt, the pieces finally all fitted together.

Free Girl… is she really or is it a contingency plan?

…And Jesus Moonwalks The Mississippi by Marcus Gardley is up at Cuttingball Theater in residence at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco, Friday-Saturday, April 23-25, 8 PM and Sunday at 5 PM.


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