There’s a lot to like in Marcus Gardley’s …And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, a co-production of Playwright’s Foundation and Cutting Ball Theater. There’s a top notch cast, a beautiful set, gorgeous integration of very well sung spirituals, and more than a few breathtaking moments. It is, perhaps, an embarrassment of riches, and at the risk of appearing an ingrate, I can’t help but wish that the playwright had spent a bit more time honing these moments into a leaner, more focused piece.
Gardley knows he’s throwing a lot at us; he calls his piece a gumbo, a melange of characters and situations, a cross between storytelling and dream poem. The narrative is loosely based on the Demeter myth set towards the end of the Civil War. In the original, the earth goddess Demeter walks the earth to rescue her daughter Persephone, who has become the queen of Hades (it’s unclear how interested Persephone is in being rescued). In Gardley’s retelling, the Tree God (David Westly Skillman) grants a lynched slave (Aldo Billingslea) hanging from one of his branches a three day reprieve from death so he can track down his daughter and share with her his song. His journey brings him to the rundown plantation where his daughter was enslaved and what remains of the family that owned her, a boozy southern belle (Jeanette Harrison) and her tomboy daughter (Sarah Mitchell). Once there he struggles to discern the truth regarding his daughter’s fate and to leave a legacy with his newly found granddaughter (Erika A. McRary), who has been integrated into their family.
The play is over two hours long, and it’s not at all clear that it needs to be. There are great lengths of soliloquizing that display a very agile mind at work, but it’s the sort of wordplay and alliteration that seems more at home in poetry slams, a bit too clever, a bit too self aware, words a bit too in love with their own sound. Such indulgences would be forgiven if the narrative were able to deliver, but too often it falls short.
Take one of most successful ideas in the show, the personification of the Mississippi in the body of one impeccable Nicole C. Julien and a rock solid vocal ensemble of three other voices (Erica Richardson, Rebecca Frank, and Halili Knox, all luminous). In undulating teal dresses they create genuine stage magic, a soundscape of poetry and song that bear witness to the hero’s attempts to escape from confederate soldiers in the opening scenes. It’s an inspired and beautiful device that recurs throughout the show, but, frustratingly, to not much narrative effect. In a striking moment in the second act, the Mississippi, running red with blood, pleads with God for a cleansing. It’s a very powerful scene, brilliantly staged and performed, but seems unmotivated by the narrative and the resulting flood doesn’t affect anything that happens afterwards.
That’s indicative of the, ahem, “relaxed” approach to narrative that runs throughout the show. There are easily a dozen interesting ideas and devices that seem like they’re going to matter or have some effect on the outcome, but they end up abandoned. Why was our hero given three days to find his daughter? That’s a pretty strong narrative device that ultimately has little consequence. It’s neat that he can ripen the rottenest of fruit and vitalize barren soil, but other than being consistent with the Demeter myth and serving as a metaphor for the South’s reliance on the slaves for their agriculture, it doesn’t really affect the story being told. And then there’s a series of scenes with a Yankee soldier (Zac Schuman) and a Confederate deserter (David Sinaiko) that feel largely unnecessary, including a reversal of character in the second act that is directly at odds with what we saw in the first act with no hint as to what caused this shift. We’re offered all sorts of narrative devices and levers and setups, but precious little follow through. Poetry is all well and good, but if you’re going to introduce narrative into the mix, it’s nice if things are working on both levels.
The most frustrating missed opportunity is Martin F. Grizzell, Jr’s riveting performance as Brer Bit, an amalgamation of Falstaff and Iago vis-a-vis Stepin Fetchit. Grizzell’s every line crackles and for a while it seems like his malicious machinations will pull the narrative threads together, or at least provide an engine to move things along, but even his schemes seem to come to no satisfying conclusion and no real consequence.
There are the guts of a great show in here, particularly whenever David Westley Skillman shows up as Jesus as seen through a child’s eyes. Those moments manage to be both serenely beautiful and laugh out loud funny, and even better, it’s a device that actually pays off in the climactic scenes of the narrative. But still, those early Jesus scenes feel like they’re from a different show, a much funnier, funner, and probably shorter show that I’d rather be watching.
But maybe it’s me. I’m wanting this play to be something it has no intention of being. Rivers don’t move in a straight line, they take long meandering paths with divergences and rivulets that go nowhere, sucked back into the earth. Perhaps I should have relaxed a bit and not worried so much about where we were headed or how long it was taking to get there. Enjoy the swim, find beauty where you can and meaning where you’d like. Come out the other side a bit cleaner and a bit wrinklier. No point in tryin’ to give the Mississippi directions to the ocean.
…and Jesus Moonwalked the Mississippi plays Thursdays-Sundays at the Exit on Taylor and has been extended to April 25
It has been selling out, so purchase tickets in advance.