BWW Review: JAZZ at Marin Theatre Company

JAZZ at Marin Theatre Company is Nambi E. Kelley's ambitious adaptation of Toni Morrison's tribute to the musical genre and African-American culture.

BWW Review: JAZZ at Marin Theatre Company

Nambi Kelley's West Coast Premiere of her ambitious adaptation of Toni Morrison's overflows with jazz, which is both its great strength and weakness. Using the novel's structure as a jumping off point, Kelley infuses the story turbulent love story of Joe and Violet with a rhythm and musicality involving speech, movement and sound. Featuring new musical compositions by SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director Marcus Shelby, inventive direction by New York based director Awoye Timpo, and a stellar ensemble cast, Jazz is spellbinding and dreamlike. But like jazz music, it can be allusive, complicated and disorienting.

BWW Review: JAZZ at Marin Theatre Company
Joe (Michael Gene Sullivan) presents Violet (C. Kelly Wright) with a Parrot (Paige Mayes).

Morrison's story follows Violet (C. Kelly Wright), an unlicensed beautician and Joe Trace (Michael Gene Sullivan), a door-to-door cosmetics salesman from their meeting in the cotton fields of Virginia, their romance and move to Harlem at the beginning of the jazz age. Joe will have a torrid affair with the very young Dorcas (Dezi Solèy), eventually murdering her at a nightclub, and Violet will have an emotional breakdown. Like a jazz composition, Kelley and Timpo create a play that deviates from the more typical narrative by offering multiple character's viewpoints of events. You get a sense of déjà vu when we see Joe surprise Violet with a colorful, talking and singing parrot from both his and her perspective.

BWW Review: JAZZ at Marin Theatre Company
Violet (C. Kelly Wright) speaks to the portrait of Dorcas (Dezi Solèy).

Even the minimalist set by Kimie Nishikawa with is bouquets of lilies that double for cotton, a few chairs and a swirling rainbow cloud of lights designed by Jeff Rowlings seems jazzy. Karen Perry's period costumes and wigs are spot-on early 20th century. Marcus Shelby's score covers Negro work songs and spirituals with ragtime and jazz. The entire the ensemble join in song, most playing multiple rolls. The acting shines throughout. C. Kelly Wright's Violet is alternatively coyly romantic and furiously angry, her raw emotions streaming from her anguished face. We watch her unravel right before our eyes, a testament to Wright's authenticity. Michael Gene Sullivan's Joe is a womanizer with an almost devotional rationale for his actions. He's compelled to murder by transference of trauma from an earlier life experience, removing his responsibility and maybe even becoming pitiable.

BWW Review: JAZZ at Marin Theatre Company
True Belle (Margo Hall) comforts Country Violet (C. Kelly Wright) with stories of Golden Gray.

The always remarkable Margo Hall breathes life and humor into Alice Manfred, a conservative Christian and aunt/guardian of Dorcas. Hall gets a huge laugh with her description of jazz music as devil's work when trying dissuade to her nightclub hopping niece from listening to the drum beat at a parade. Aunt Manfred seems to be enjoying those forbidden fruits a little too much. Desi Solèy is the not-so innocent Dorcas, the victim of her seduction of an older man. Paige Mayes has the most surreal role, that of a gifted parrot and cipher who's onstage most of play. In her many characters Tiffany Tenille is a bright young actor to keep your eye on. Lisa Lacy digs her teeth into the gossipy and sassy Malvonne. Dane Troy is the other male presence representing a range of African-American men from sharecropper, gambler and pompous Harlem lady's man.

BWW Review: JAZZ at Marin Theatre Company
(L-R) Lisa Lacy, Dane Troy, Tiffany Tenille

Kelley asks a lot of the audience. The improvisational nature, time shifting and call-and-response type, like some forms of jazz, can seem disjointed and chaotic. Some people need a melody to latch onto, so they feel invested in the emotions. Walking into this piece without having read the book, I found myself scratching my head at moments thinking I had missed some dialogue. When I let myself go and just took Jazz in, I felt something interesting and different. In that intention, Jazz successfully accomplished the goal of merging a traditional woman-done-wrong story with the exciting, creative music of its age.

Jazz continues through May 19th, 2019 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. Tickets available at or by calling (415) 388-5208.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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