Like the music, the mise-en-scène and acting provide a pale imitation of the text. The narrator's recollection of his uncle's death is one of the story's dramatic high points, but director Margo Hall weakens its power by blocking it in a back corner of the stage in clichéd slow motion behind an obstructive chain-link fence. Similarly, the use of a wooden box plunked on top of a table to denote a piano not only looks amateurish but also makes a joke of Baldwin's intimate descriptions of Sonny's playing. As Sonny, Da'Mon Vann does his best to emulate a jazz man at work, caressing the table's surface as though he's pouring out his soul in some smoky New York speakeasy. But despite his efforts, the wooden box and table refuse to sing. Ultimately, the musicality of Sonny's Blues is right there in Baldwin's words. The staging only serves to impede our ability to hear it.
Baldwin was a prolific playwright. I find myself longing to see this talented team of collaborators (you wouldn't necessarily know how skilful they are from experiencing this play) take on one of Baldwin's real plays such as Blues for Mister Charlie or The Amen Corner. The results would be much more engrossing than this attempt to wring theater out of a piece of intractable, polished prose. Hemingway had only one full-length play and a one-acter to his name, yet even he understood the relationship between fiction and drama. Why can't Word for Word?