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Thomas W. Jones II has been intimating in interviews that he’d like to take Slam!, the new poetry-slam musical he’s set in a cafe called the Last Word, straight from the 220-seat Studio Theatre to Broadway. Hyperbole, right? Grandstanding on a grand scale by an author-director with delusions of grandeur?
Well, if I had a dime to invest, I’d back Slam! right now…with this cast, these designers, this production. If Smokey Joe’s Cafe can set up shop for five years on Broadway, there’s no reason Slam!’s Last Word Cafe shouldn’t be serving shots to its denizens for a decade or two at least. It’s smart, passionate, jazzy, and, like its eight angry characters (and in contrast to Smokey Joe’s five vapid ones), it has something to say.
Slam!’s characters, as they gather to the rhythmic beat of a score composed by Jones and William Knowles, initially look like theatrical “types”: tough hooker, misunderstood husband, cynical outcast, funky hiphopper, wounded wife, and so on. But with Last Word proprietor Autumn (Chandra Currelley) prompting them to “make it specific” as they chase their metaphors, each of them soon fleshes out.
The hooker, Summer (Rahmana M. Finney), her hips so tightly sheathed in black latex that they reflect lighting designer Michael Giannitti’s brightly hued spots, turns out to have an unexpectedly harrowing familial story to go with the watchcry “Butterfly McQueen burned last night; where are her shrines?” Hyperkinetic urban outcast Jordan (Christopher Michael Bauer), bouncing on the balls of his feet as if he were being dribbled by some cosmic basketballer, knows exactly what he’s doing when he spells poet (“p-o-w-i-t”), disses slamming (“People don’t want truth, they want cable”), and gets in everyone else’s face. Deserted white wife Claire (Shannon Parks), who announces “I am a woman, mother of two black children,” has a lot more on her plate than anger at her husband, Dex (J. Samuel Davis), a man brazening his way through a midlife crisis. So does frenetic, pole-swinging, arm-flinging hiphopper D.C. (Jahi A. Kearse), who can riff a blue streak on sexual frustration but gets tongue-tied over love.
Also on hand are Hispanic siren Amani (svelte Duke Ellington grad Monroe Thomas), in agony over the death in Panama of her crusading father, and the light-skinned prevaricator Sengalese (Yvette G. Spears), fleeing her mixed parentage for all she’s worth. Each of them gets a chance to vent in both verse and song, and choreographer Patdro Harris has provided them with appropriately varied slides, spins, and foot-stomping.
The show is not really set up as a poetry contest, but more as a prelude to one, with Autumn playing an understanding den mother to the poets who pop by for drinks and confrontation. Her aim is to get them to examine and then re-examine their gut instincts until what they’re spouting isn’t frustration, but poetry. And as they carouse, squabble, posture, pontificate, and dance up a storm, they slowly do. The evening’s songs, which range from hiphop to blues to avant-garde jazz, are character numbers that function in much the same way the poems did 23 years ago in Ntozake Shange’s seminal For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Like that earlier show, Slam! is plotless, but it is far too vibrantly integrated a work to be labeled a revue. Rather, it’s a throwback to that provocative period when the makers of musical entertainments were determined to graft social substance onto their song-and-dance shows, even if it meant audiences had to do a little work.
Atlanta audiences apparently embraced Slam! when the Jomandi theater troupe opened it last year with some of these same performers. And with Knowles heading a hot backstage quintet, and the full-voiced cast belting far beyond the comparatively low rafters at Studio’s Milton Theatre, patrons here would have to be tone-deaf not to do the same. This score—dissonant and melodic by turns, and invariably roof-raising—is the first I’ve encountered in several years (admittedly, they’ve not been particularly good years for Broadway) that I’d actually like to have on CD.
For those who have admired Jones’ way with words in his quasi-autobiographical outings The Wizard of Hip and Hip 2: Birth of the Boom, this show won’t hold a lot of verbal surprises. Fans have come to expect the sort of zinger that greets a fight-stopping Dex (“Who’re you?…Schwartzenigger?”), and the playing on sound and sense (“Ain’t no justice, just us”) of which Jones has always been fond. But the author is dealing here with emotions that cut a little deeper than the ones he gave himself in his earlier shows. The scream of a prostitute when she fears that another woman is being beaten feels decidedly primal in Slam!. A moment with a similar spin in Hip 2 was significantly softer.
Jones still has a smidgen of work to do—the show’s opening feels perfunctory and slightly generic, the first act could use some tightening, and it would be nice if a shift of gears from psychological poetry to sociological production numbers in the evening’s last few minutes were set up more deliberately. Suddenly, these disparate poets, who’ve spent all evening clawing at each other over specifics, are singing in tandem about broader issues, and, although the songs are rousing, they seem to have arrived unbidden from a show that’s more like Eubie or Bubblin’ Brown Sugar.
Still, Slam!, as it stands, is never less than a theatrical powerhouse. I can’t imagine why anyone who has the chance to see it in intimate confines on 14th Street would wait to pay more to catch it on Broadway.
After visiting All in the Timing, a hilarious compilation of one-acts that played a few years ago at the Round House Theatre, I was tempted to view playwright David Ives primarily as a wordsmith. I realize, now that I’ve seen his equally amusing Mere Mortals, that he’s really a situationsmith. He specializes in finding offbeat ways to explore traditional dramatic topics. Verbal wit is essentially along for the ride.
When he shreds David Mamet, for instance, in a sketch called Speed the Play, the jokes are primarily at the expense of machismo, not the stuttering, stammering style Mamet has driven into the ground. Not to say that when the cast decides to present four Mamet plays in seven minutes, the jokes don’t touch on language. A scene from American Buffalo (rendered as “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”…blackout) clearly doesn’t have much else but language on its mind. But it’s the posing and the cock-of-the-walk attitudinizing that provides the fun, especially as expounded by a mustachioed Naomi Jacobson.
Give Ives a topic, and he’ll pointedly dance around your expectations. Death, for instance, has him wondering in one sketch what might happen if two mayflies were to catch a PBS documentary on swamp life and discover that they had only one day to live. Romance has him working the metaphor of miniature golf for all it’s worth; he treats disease with a dose of magical realism; and so on.
Nick Olcott’s briskly paced production breezes brightly from sketch to sketch with barely a pause for set and costume changes, though designers Jos. B. Musumeci Jr. and Rosemary Pardee have both been prolifically clever—Pardee’s six-legged getups for the mayflies are very nearly worth the price of admission on their own.
Steven Scott Mazzola’s staging of A Streetcar Named Desire has several genuinely intriguing ideas going for it—including the notion that delicate, kindness-of-strangers-dependent Blanche is actually the strongest person on the premises—and pacing problems that make attending to those ideas way too difficult. From the word “go,” the whole Keegan Theatre company seems to be wilting from the Louisiana heat, quite as if Tennessee Williams hadn’t crafted Streetcar, with its steamy sexuality and carefully calibrated violence, as the most aggressive, slam-bang stage melodrama of this century. Stanley (a miscast Mark Rhea) gets briefly revived at the play’s midpoint, when his poker-playing buddies douse his head in a sink, but his renewed vigor lasts just long enough for him to bellow “Stella!” at his beloved (who is played intelligently but not very sexily by Brook Butterworth), before he collapses to the floor. Blanche (a calculating Amy McWilliams) and her admirer, Mitch (Ian LeValley, stammering to beat the band), fare better, partly because their scenes together have always been about diffidence. Sheri S. Herren also has some effective moments as the Kowalskis’ concerned landlady, and the design work is fine. But at three and a half hours, the evening is a far more languid and listless ride than it should be. CP