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Review: ‘Jazz’ at Baltimore Center Stage

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In its latest quest to create and present a diverse array of bold, innovative and thought-provoking contemporary theater, Baltimore Center Stage (BCS) unveiled the world premiere production of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American author Toni Morrison’s Jazz, which debuted with a well-attended reception to kick off the Memorial Day weekend.

For several years, since commencing his role as the Company’s Artistic Director, Kwame Kwei-Armah has aspired to bring an exhilarating contemporary interpretation and stage adaption of Morrison’s 1992 Harlem-centric historical novel to Baltimore.

After securing the support of prolific Playwright Nambi E. Kelley (who adapted Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, premiered by American Blues Theater and Court Theatre in Chicago in 2014), Kwei-Armah’s aspiration was finally realized, culminating in a lyrical love story that is richly textured in alternating time periods and geographical locations, extending back to the mid-19th Century American South.

“I’m a huge fan of Toni Morrison, and of Jazz in particular. It’s an important chronicle of the human experience, and although it takes place in the 1920s, the story’s theme still resonate today,” said Kwei-Armah. “I’m thrilled to direct such a talented group of actors and designers to bring Playwright Nambi Kelley’s vision to life on the stage of Baltimore.”

Dexterously directed by Kwei-Armah, each of the nine-member ensemble excellently executed his/her respective roles to reveal rhythms and riffs that offer juxtaposing perspectives of a love triangle (proficiently played by Jasmine Batchelor (Dorcas), Leon Addison Brown (Joe Trace). and Shanésia Davis as Violet Trace) gone wrong amidst a changing cultural landscape in Harlem.

Jazz is filled with scene-setting sound (music directed and composed by Kathryn Bostic enhanced by Sound Designer Shane Rettig, Scenic Designer Tim Mackabee, Lighting Designer Michelle Habeck and Projection Designer Alex Basco Koch), style (Costume Designer David Burdick and Hair and Makeup Designer Tommy Kurzman) and dance indicative (nicely choreographed by Paloma McGregor) of the Jazz era.

Rounding out the talented, multi-dimensional cast (with four pulling double duty) were Jasmine Carmichael (Young Violet/Felice), Warner Miller (Young Joe/Acton), Michele Shay (Alice Manfred/True Belle), Avery Whitted (Golden Gray/Parrot), Benja Kay Thomas (Malvonne), and Greg Boyer as the Trombonist.

A poetic celebration of African American history and unconventional love, Jazz bares a kaleidoscope of unbridled dreams, passions, and struggles in a highly nuanced narrative intricately interwoven with music and dance that continually shifts to offer new perspectives and meaning to otherwise unspeakable situations.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Jazz plays through June 25, 2017, at Baltimore Center Stage — 700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD.  For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.

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