"... and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi" falls short of epic ambitions

Since the early 1990s, just about any American playwright of even moderate ambition has dreamed of writing the next Angels in America. Tony Kushner's two-part "gay fantasia" made its world premiere at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre Company in 1991, eventually proceeding to Broadway and back-to-back Tony Awards. It is the preeminent play of its generation — unapologetically political, devastatingly articulate — and stands as a rare triumph of that rarest of oxymorons, the intimate epic.

Marcus Gardley's ... and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, a new play coproduced by the Cutting Ball Theater and the Playwrights Foundation, is very much in the Kushner tradition. (I'm not just pulling that out of my ass: Rob Melrose, Cutting Ball's artistic director, invites the comparison in the playbill's introductory notes.) Set during the Civil War, steeped in biblical and mythological allusion, Gardley's play applies a sweeping vision of American history to the story of a very dysfunctional family. Like Kushner's work, it combines a kind of high-toned mysticism with an earthy sense of humor, and it brims with energy, poetry, and clever ideas.

It's also a bit of a mess. A play this ambitious is bound to need a lot of development before it's ready for prime time, and Jesus Moonwalks has seen its share of workshops around the country. Even so, its current manifestation is a few workshops short of a satisfying production.

Black Jesus (David Westly Skillman) moonwalks whenever someone sings "Billie Jean."
Black Jesus (David Westly Skillman) moonwalks whenever someone sings "Billie Jean."

The story concerns an escaped slave named Damascus (Aldo Billingslea) who's searching for his missing daughter, Po' Em, during the Siege of Vicksburg in May 1863. Damascus falls victim to a lynching, which doesn't kill him, but instead transforms him into a woman named Demeter. He then proceeds to the Verse Plantation, where a white woman named Cadence (Jeanette Harrison) is raising her daughter, Blanche (Sarah Mitchell), alongside a former slave girl who thinks she's white (Erika A. McCrary). Before long — and for reasons that still aren't entirely clear to me — we're treated to the presence of an African-American Jesus (David Westley Skillman), who breaks into a moonwalk whenever the other characters sing "Billie Jean." Narrating all of this is a chorus led by Miss Ssippi (Nicole C. Julien), a high-spirited embodiment of the river that flows through Vicksburg.

At times, these disparate elements come together in startling and memorable ways, as when Jesus joins the Verse family for an unexpectedly goofy meal. ("Jesus loves grits," our Lord and Savior explains.) More often than not, however, Gardley has a tendency to abandon ideas before they've fully developed, leaving the play's dense allegorical structure in need of a lot of clarification and refinement.

I pity the person who feels the need to parse the symbolic universe that Gardley creates. We begin with the biblical story of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus — a story that's curiously paralleled with lynching — before we're booted over to the mythological story of Demeter and Persephone. By the time we encounter a messianic Michael Jackson, it's tough to think of any coherent explanatory framework that might account for what's happening onstage. There are simply too many symbols and portents struggling for attention.

Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad classifies the play as a kind of "gumbo," which I guess is a delicious way of saying "pastiche." But if we go with the food analogy, I can think of a number of ingredients whose absence would improve this particular stew. First off, the characters' names could be less cute ("Po' Em" and "Verse" should be among the first to go). At least one subplot — the one involving a borderline sadomasochistic relationship between a Confederate soldier (David Sinaiko) and a Yankee (Zac Schuman) — fails to add significant interest. I could've done without the overlong monologue from the guy dressed as a tree. And the play occasionally descends into schmaltzy territory, as when McCrary's character embraces her true skin color after seeing her reflection at the bottom of a pail of water.

Some of these issues might have been less problematic with help from a stronger cast. Julien gives the show's best performance as the sassy Miss Ssippi, and Billingslea helps ground the play with his no-nonsense interpretation of Damascus and Demeter. But not everyone fares so well. Few things distract me more than poor dialect work, and some of the actors' Southern drawls are hit-and-miss. Gardley's intense lyricism, which seems overripe at the moment, might also fare better with a more seasoned group of actors who could handle it more nimbly.

Director Amy Mueller does a respectable job of keeping the production on track, but it's a bumpy ride all the same — try as she may, the second act is too erratic to maintain interest. The one element of this production that shouldn't change at all, though, is Michael Locher's set. Built on bare planks and festooned with colorful buttons that double as stars, it's a striking piece of work that's perfectly suited to the material.

For all its mythopoetic ambitions, ... and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi is a long way from being the next Angels in America — though the same could be said of just about anything written in English. A more reasonable assessment would say that Gardley has concocted an oversized pot of gumbo that could use fewer ingredients and more time on the stove.

 
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