Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi": A Thriller of a Play

So, one of the reasons I was so eager to share with you that I am on the Cutting Ball Literary Committee is because it affects the way I discuss Cutting Ball productions on this blog. Now that I am somewhat affiliated with this institution, I can't write objectively about it, and it's fair for you to know that.

And that's important because on Saturday night I went to see the latest Cutting Ball production, the world premiere of ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, by Marcus Gardley. Here's my attempt to discuss some elements of the production while honoring my new association with this theater company.

I came to love Cutting Ball through their productions of three plays with minimalist plots and production values: Thom Pain, Krapp's Last Tape, and The Bald Soprano. Jesus Moonwalks is kind of a departure from that; it features 12 actors and a more elaborate physical production. Cutting Ball has built a stage out of stained wooden boards, with constellations of colored buttons on the back wall--it looks wonderfully Southern and folk-arty. Miss Ssippi (the river herself, played by Nicole C. Julien) wears a beautiful blue gown with an 1860s silhouette. She and the three members of the female Chorus sing many spirituals in beautiful four-part harmony. (Anyone else think that they should have a sing-off with the three middle-aged African-American guys who are always out in front of A.C.T. singing "Down By the Riverside"?) And the incorporation of these powerful old songs into the script makes Jesus Moonwalks a communal, cathartic experience.

Furthermore, while the language of Jesus Moonwalks is highly lyrical and metaphorical, the play also has a plot in the traditional sense (something that Thom Pain, Krapp's Last Tape, and Bald Soprano lack). Actually, make that a plot and several subplots. The main story is that of the slave Damascus (Aldo Billingslea), who is traveling through the Civil-War-torn South trying to find his daughter, Po'em. Though Damascus is lynched by Confederate soldiers, Miss Ssippi resurrects him and transforms him into a woman: Demeter. The play thus refers to the myth of Persephone (and it made me wonder: why are there so many plays that treat the Orpheus and Eurydice theme, and comparitively few about Demeter and Persephone?).

I actually met Billingslea seven years ago when he was one of the actor-instructors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Summer Seminar for high school students. We kids thought he was the coolest guy ever--I still remember a chant that he taught us! He does a great job in the role of Damascus/Demeter, playing a woman with intelligence and without any condescension.

Eventually Demeter winds up in Louisiana on the Verse family plantation, home to several colorful characters. The plantation mistress, Cadence Verse (Jeanette Harrison) is like some kind of twisted Tennessee Williams figure--a delusional, dipsomaniacal Southern belle with some nasty secrets. Then there are two young girls underfoot: Blanche (Sarah Mitchell), a white tomboy; and Free (Erika A. McCrary), who doesn't know she's black.

Jesus Moonwalks is an ambitious play and could potentially use one more revision to work out some of the kinks. In the first part of the play, Jesus is mostly a comic figure (lots of humor arises because only one of the other characters can see and hear him, and the moment when he moonwalks is pretty amusing) but the denouement requires you to take Jesus seriously and believe that this is the almighty son of God. I thought that the shift in tone could be smoothed out. Also, the time frame of the play is a little confusing, though the elaborate program notes try their best to explain it: evidently it starts in 1863 at the Siege of Vicksburg then jumps forward two years to the very end of the Civil War, but that doesn't quite register in the script.

Still, I recommend ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi for its lyricism, its spirituals, its ability to put the Mississippi River on the stage of a small S.F. theater, its unique take on American history and heritage. It's just been extended at Cutting Ball till April 25. And I would love for the play to have a future life--some theater in the South ought to pick it up!

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