KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 23, 2001
There’s a striking similarity between the Black Ensemble Theater’s latest offering — “The Mojo and the Sayso” — and the recent Globe Theatre production, “Crumbs from the Table of Joy.” Both are African-American domestic dramas set in New York. In both cases, a premature death nearly tears a family apart. The reactions are parallel — family members retreat into silence or fantasy, anger or withdrawal, and in each case, one parent is sucked under the influence of a slick, mercenary preacher-man. Racism is a palpable presence, but only when the family is free of a hypocritical spiritual leader can the healing begin.
Though both plays feature working-class families, the titles set a very different tone. Lynn Nottage’s — “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” — is a beautiful, lyrical line from a Langston Hughes poem. Aisha Rahman’s 1989 piece sports a much more earthy name, “The Mojo and the Sayso.” By way of explanation, Acts. the father, tells his son, “Let me give you a very important piece of mojo.…The right mojo will give you the sayso. Put you in the driver’s seat.” Both plays don’t quite deliver on their titular promise.
One is less poetic, the other less homey. But each can be seen as an intriguing slice of life. In “Mojo,” the dramatic stakes are higher; a 10-year old boy is dead because of a wrongful police shooting. How the family reacts is what’s fascinating here. But the play itself is weak, and the cast and director don’t quite take it where it needs to go. First of all, it should simmer and seethe. Director Patrick Stewart has encouraged way too much yelling and screaming. Rhys Green most commonly and comfortably plays anger, and he projects it at a volume that would fill the Civic Theatre — not the tiny new McDonald Mori Performing Arts space. He portrays the suffering, guilt-ridden father, who was there with his son that morning, and who couldn’t prevent the boy’s death; he withdraws into his fantasies and focuses on the inner workings of his car instead of his family. He shouldn’t be shouting from the opening moments of the play. When Green is restrained, he’s far more effective, and he’s also got somewhere to go with the character.
As his wife, the pastor-loving Awilda, Allie Blaylock is solid throughout, and Kirk Bradley is frighteningly realistic and chillingly otherworldly as The Preacher. Local college student Caleb Nam is credible as the outraged, aggressive brother of the deceased, but his speaking rate is so rushed and mumbled, you miss half his lines.
The ending is too pat and abrupt, though there are some touching scenes here, some dramatic moments. But the director needs to take a more muscular approach to toning down the histrionics and teasing out some depth and intensity from his performers; otherwise they just don’t have the mojo.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.