Friday, February 15, 2008

"Sonny's Blues": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG BANG

It doesn't get much better -- the words of James Baldwin, the original music of Marcus Shelby and a timeless story about the power of music and the twist of redemption. Baldwin wrote "Sonny's Blues" in 1955 (it was first published in the Partisan Review in 1957) but there isn't one sentiment nor piece of dialog that doesn't ring true in the cool light of February, 2008.

The period is the late 1940s in Harlem. Sonny's never-named elder brother (played with anguished conviction by Peter Macon) is recalling how he first knew Sonny (Da'Mon Vann) was in trouble, leading to the younger man's conviction for using heroin. When Sonny enters the stage, the two brothers interact with a back-and-forth dialogue much like a jazz duo, Sonny trying to explain why he loves music and his brother trying, in vain, to understand. Meanwhile, the wonderful Margarette Robinson (Mama/Ensemble) punctuates each scene with stinging one-liners and a stirring gospel voice.

Marcus Shelby's score helps set the mood, but the most amazing part is that Margo Hall's direction allows the cast to appear as if they are extemporizing, when in fact a Word for Word production -- where every word in the short story is actually spoken, including narrations -- could not be less improvised nor more completely choreographed. Of course, Word for Word productions always work so much better when the actual words are of the caliber of James Baldwin.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Sonny's Blues" three stars for the writing and cast. It's a superb piece of composition that is hard for actors to match up against. But they do. An extra half star is awarded for the ensemble -- Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Allison L. Payne and Robert Hampton -- for how seamlessly they play multiple roles.

Plus, there are two Bangles of Praise: the first is for the way Ms. Payne tilts her hip at the gospel trio, managing to say I Believe You and I Don't Believe You with one motion. The second is for that incredible moment when Baldwin tells us how Sonny is encouraged to go off the deep end in his piano soloing. We won't repeat the lines here -- you'll know them when you hear them. Three and a half stars plus two Bangles for "Sonny's Blues." This is a story you won't forget.

"Sonny's Blues"
Lorraine Hansberry Theater
620 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Wed-Sun, through March 2 $27-$32


Unknown said...

My husband and I had the incredible luck to catch the Saturday night performance (on the waiting list!) I had never seen (nor heard) of Word for Word but I have since been spreading the "word"! The cast members were extraordinary and the production is one I will never forget. And to think we almost didn't see it because of the review in the SF Arts and Entertainment section! What was Chloe Veltman thinking or actually what play did she watch because it could not possibly have been the exceptional performance that I was moved by!

DAK said...

Dear Mary - I am often amazed by what critics see, myself included. I think what happens is that people who see a lot of theater tend to be moved by the weird and unusual. Word for Word is always the opposite of that -- literal. I loved Sonny's Blues. This is what happens when a profound wordsmith lands on a stage. Thanks for writing.- DAK