BWW Review: One Woman Creates Many Voices in MR. JOY at Cincinnati Playhouse In The Park
Here's what we know about Mr. Joy. He was Chinese, really nice, and very good at fixing shoes. He was someone who would take you under his wing, hug you if you cried, and would never betray you even if you had hurt him very badly. He was someone who created, well, joy. You may think to yourself, "He sounds great! I wish I knew him."
In Mr. Joy, Daniel Beaty's one-woman play, now playing in the Shelterhouse Theatre at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park, a sense of community is created around the beneficent Chinese immigrant's shoe repair shop in Harlem. A menagerie of New Yorkers, nine in all, nimbly portrayed by Playhouse veteran Debra Walton, are introduced one by one. Through a series of monologues, we discover that all nine characters are connected and have been positively affected by Mr. Joy. With each new introduction, the world gets smaller and smaller as the mystery of who savagely attacked Mr. Joy in his shop begins to unravel.
The one-woman piece is just the right size for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's diminutive Shelterhouse Theatre. We get up close and personal with the characters as Ms. Walton creatively utilizes set designer Misha Kachman's realistic New York street scenery. It's a picture-perfect set right down to the graffiti on the battered old payphone, and, combined with Amatus Karim-Ali's terrific sound design, the atmosphere is quite convincing.
Ms. Walton works hard, successfully morphing from one character to another using only her physical and vocal talents, and perhaps one small prop, to distinguish between them. Mr. Beaty provides a diverse group of personalities for Ms. Walton to work with, and his writing is infused with humor. However, the connections he attempts to make to Mr. Joy are tenuous at best as the play tries to address a multitude of social ills: gentrification, over-incarceration of black men, gang violence, transphobia, AIDS, racism, interracial relationships, identity politics, xenophobia, and homelessness.
In its construction, Mr. Joy recalls Anna Deavere Smith's groundbreaking 1994 work Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, about the Rodney King beating and subsequent Los Angeles riots. But, in Twilight, the words, vocal qualities, movements, and gestures of the characters are those of the actual participants, victims, and witnesses of the riots. This endows her work with compelling honesty and an eerie "truth is stranger than fiction" vibe as you marvel at the strengths, weaknesses, quirks, differences, and prejudices of people from wildly disparate backgrounds occupying a single, crowded space.
In comparison, many of the fictional characters in Mr. Joy seem thinly drawn, treading a fine line and sometimes toppling over into stereotype. Mr. Beaty introduces us to a flamboyant trans woman taking down her preacher-lover's wife. A rich and successful black man who must go to therapy for being a Republican. A grandma with faith in the Lord and her cooking. A Chinese man raised in Harlem who mysteriously retains a thick Mandarin accent. A privilegEd White woman named "Becky" who is clueless about her racism. A young girl born with AIDS who is gleefully unaware of her own tragic-ness. A young black poet raised on the streets and struggling to stay out of prison. A drunk and homeless artist who sees without being seen and spreads wisdom during unexpected moments of lucidity.
As the production comes to a close, you have a feeling that you have missed something. The pieces are all there, but for some reason they don't quite connect. Smith's Twilight connects because we know the context, we've seen the footage: the riots shook the entire nation. But, Mr. Joy's beating could be one of any of the acts of violence we glimpse in the paper: a short blurb, a quick local news mention. There's not even a picture of him, and we begin to realize...we don't know Mr. Joy. The play starts to feel like commiserating with a casual acquaintance over the death of their grandmother whom you've never met. She sounds like she was really great. You know it hurts to lose a grandmother, you sympathize, you see that person is sad, but it fails to really phase you.
Photo: Mikki Schaffner