Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
June 22, 2012
Singin ’ the blues – in love and war. Two recent plays consider misguided intentions – on the personal and the global scale.
The Big Picture is historical, in J.T. Rogers’ 2011 drama, “Blood and Gifts,” whose West coast premiere is at the La Jolla Playhouse. It’s the backstory of the current war in Afghanistan, harking back to the 1980s Cold War conflagration there, when we were clandestine participants, hellbent on defeating the Soviets.
We follow a CIA operative as he lands in Pakistan, and makes multi-national alliances that shift like the desert sands.
The play is a dense political cloak-and-dagger gambit, a chess game where the pieces are always in flux and the American credo is “Deniability, first and foremost.” Even though we’re selling arms and providing missiles, we’re sort of not there.
The intensity of the various faiths, beliefs and allegiances, where no one trusts anyone, is offset by the parallel personal stories: a wife waiting at home, the difficulty of starting or maintaining a family, the danger of every interaction, the consequences of every commitment. Under the taut direction of Lucie Tiberghien , we get a strong sense of the moral muddle of the former – and, by extension, the current – Afghan conflicts, and the chaos inherent in both.
The 21-member cast is superb, with its disparate cultures, costumes and accents. The haunting sound design and the ferocity of the story keep you riveted, but the play requires focused attention, to grasp the intricacies of belief, action and motivation.
The production is outstanding, the content brutal and harrowing. In this election year of winding-down wars, you owe it to yourself to see this savage, muscular show.
Ironically, it all comes down to faith and trust in “Hoodoo Love,” too. Katori Hall’s 2007 drama is set in a shantytown just outside Depression-era Memphis. Toulou just wants to be out on the road, singing in juke joints like her ramblin ’ bluesman boyfriend, Ace of Spades. But even more, she wants him to be exclusively hers. So she calls on her neighbor, the aging ex-slave, Candylady , to whip up some man-baiting magic, in the form of traditional African American hoodoo.
Here, too, allegiance and morality are slippery. Are hypocritical, Bible-thumping brothers to be trusted? Are loving men? Are women victimized, or do they wield their own kind of power?
The play is constructed like a blues song, telling Toulou’s tragic story, with a touch of humor and smidgeon of hope. Blues numbers, written by Hall, suffuse the play.
But at Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, guest director Nataki Garrett went for impeccable actors rather than soulful singers, which weakens the power of the piece. Still, the production and performances are excellent.
In these plays, there is no black and white. But the potent stories are richly told, and that’s something to sing about.
The Mo’olelo production of “Hoodoo Love” runs through July 1 at the 10th Avenue Theatre downtown.
“Blood and Gifts” continues through July 8, at the La Jolla Playhouse.
©2012 PAT LAUNER