JAZZ Has World Premiere at Baltimore Center Stage Based on Toni Morrison Novel

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Center Stage Artistic Director Kwami Kwei-Armah does not shy away from presenting new and complex new work. Some are hits and some are misses. But you must respect and thank Kwei-Armah for his risk-taking.

According to Kwei-Armah, "Truly, this is a world premiere. The production culminates a long and dramatic journey of profound transformations for Baltimore Center Stage" (the theater's official new name). In fact, JAZZ was scheduled to begin on January 11, 2012 directed by Marion McClinton after a week-long workshop in Minneapolis but on August 3, 2011, Kwei-Armah stated in Playbill.com that "the new play with music required a longer development period than anticipated. Expect Center Stage to be involved in the piece in the future."

Well, the future is now and Kwei-Armah has taken over as Director. It is quite an undertaking for playwright Nambi E. Kelley to adapt such a complex novel as "Jazz". The story, like jazz itself, is full of improvisation, that goes back and forth in time, and presents characters at different ages sometimes at the same time. It is certainly complex. It is also entertaining. While much may be hard to comprehend or even understand, the same can be said of the music known as jazz. One sees the "melody" of the play done differently. There are scenes that are replicated numerous times similar to music.

The story involves Joe and Violet who marry in rural Virginia and join the great migration to Harlem at the turn of the century. Joe in his 50's then falls in love with a young and beautiful 17 year old named Dorca. As one could expect, things do not work out well for Joe, his wife Violet, or Dorca. I am not familiar with the novel and believe if you are, you may follow the complexities of the characters a little easier than those who are not cognizant of the Morrison work.

I must admit I was disappointed there was not more music. There is one musician who appears often playing the trombone (Greg Boyer and Jared Denhard on June 24 known for his work with former Governor Martin O'Malley's rock group O'Malley's March) but I anticipated more music and more dancing (choreographer Paloma McGregor) since the play takes place in the jazz center of New York, Harlem.

The cast is universally excellent. I was thrilled to see Shanesia Davis back on the boards at Center Stage where she was so mesmerizing as "Esther" in the world premiere of Lynn Nottage's INTIMATE APPAREL. She is sensational in the complex role of Violet. Playing her husband Joe is Leon Addison Brown who is superb. Playing the young Dorcas is Jasmine Batchelor and she is quite the performer who I believe has a great future ahead of her. Playing her Aunt Alice Manfred is the veteran actress with much stature, Michele Shay.

One of the highlights of the play is Avery Whitted who animates Violet's pet parrot with great humor and a superb singing voice. The ensemble adds a great deal to the evening: Jason Bowen, Jasmine Carmichael, Warner Miller, and Benja Kay Thomas.

Kudos to the design team that includes Baltimore's own Tim Mackabee (a graduate of Toswons' Carver Center of the Arts and Technology) for his great scenic design, David Burdick for the clever costumes, Michelle Nabeck for the moving lighting, Shane Rettig for the sound, and Alex Basco Koch for the Projections which add greatly to the historical significance of the play.

JAZZ runs through June 25. For tickets, call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.

Center Stage has announced next season: THE CHRISTIANS by Lucas Hnath, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE by Lee Hall based on the film, LOOKINGGLASS ALICE adapted by David Catlin from the works of Lewis Carroll, SKELETON CREW by Dominique Morisseau, George Orwell's ANIMAL FARM adapted by Ian Woolridge, and a new world premiere play with music.


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From This Author Charles Shubow