“Sonny’s Blues” Doesn’t Work on the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre Stage

Ernest Hemingway wrote only two plays in his life. It's surprising that he didn't write more of them, as he apparently found drama easier to pen than prose. “The making part of a play comes after the writing of it,” he explained in a recently discovered letter written in the 1930s, excerpts of which appeared in The New York Times on Feb. 10. “Other people do all the great detail that you just indicate when you write. Right now I have been working steadily for a year and a month on a novel. In that no one can help you. But in a play the credit for all the really hard work goes to those who stage, direct, and act in it. I had all the fun.”

There are dramatists — not to mention directors and actors — who would no doubt disagree with Hemingway's assessment of the theatrical process. Indeed, the work of some playwrights, such as Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee, reveals nothing if not a didactic desire on the part of the writer to maintain as much control as possible over the transition of their words from the page to the stage. Yet when it comes to making sense of the largely listless literary exercise that is Word for Word and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre's staging of James Baldwin's well-known short story, “Sonny's Blues,” Hemingway's thoughts concerning the relationship between prose and drama couldn't be more apt: As a “blueprint” for a production, a play needs a performance to make it complete. Already stuffed with detailed descriptions of character and setting, a short story or novel requires only a reader to bring it to life. Being the powerfully written narrative that it is, “Sonny's Blues” comes to the Lorraine Hansberry stage prepackaged with “all the great detail,” thus leaving little to the theater company or audience's imagination. Where's the fun in that?

To a degree, it's possible to levy this criticism at all of Word for Word's productions. The San Francisco–based company specializes in staging short stories by famous authors such as Amy Tan, Bernard Malamud, and Tobias Wolff with every single word — from the “he saids” and “she saids” to descriptions of settings and characters' actions normally relegated to stage directions in real dramatic texts — painstakingly preserved. As such, the actors have no choice but to “mimic” the action set out on the page, providing relatively scant room for creative interpretation. Performing this way must be a bit like trying to direct traffic in a straitjacket.

At their best, Word for Word's productions serve not only to acquaint (or reacquaint) audiences with great works of short fiction, but they also manage to overcome many of the challenges of staging prose without the benefit of adapting a literary text to suit the particular qualities of the stage medium. The company's staging of chapters from Daniel Handler's 4 Adverbs in 2006 had its flaws, but at least the directors and performers got to exercise their imaginations on the prose. In one section, for instance, the ensemble brilliantly captured Handler's description of a woman reeling around San Francisco swigging champagne by making the scenery sway drunkenly. In another, director Sheila Balter conveyed a sense of danger by having the two main actors perform a scene some 20 feet up a long set of steps. The precarious height sharpened the emotion of Handler's prose. We held our breath, wondering if the heroine would have the guts to jump.

Sonny's Blues is less satisfying from a dramatic perspective than many of Word for Word's previous efforts because the production team largely fails to eke out enough creative space for itself beyond the confines of the text. Baldwin's is a powerful narrative, so perhaps it's unsurprising that the prose exerts such a stranglehold on the artists involved in staging the production. Like Oscar Hijuelos' The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and Richard Powers' The Time of Our Singing, “Sonny's Blues” uses music as a prism through which to explore issues surrounding cultural roots and race. Also like Hijuelos' and Powers' novels, Baldwin's short story follows the fortunes of two brothers, one more conventional and superficially more integrated into mainstream society than his wildly artistic, loose-cannon sibling. When the nameless narrator, an upstanding schoolteacher and family man, finds out that his younger brother. Sonny, a jazz pianist, has been apprehended by the cops for dealing and using heroin, memories of his own past rush back. The narrator's reminiscences coupled with his evolving relationship with Sonny lead him to acknowledge the “blues” in his own life — and the darkness in society at large — that he had ignored or suppressed for so long.

Music is the central metaphor in this story, and the producers rightly highlighted its importance by commissioning local jazz luminary Marcus Shelby to compose a score. Yet Shelby's music doesn't have anything close to the impact that it should. Instead of creating tension or contributing new layers of meaning, the score rarely performs any function other than setting a mood. When the narrator talks about the death of his uncle at the hands of a bunch of drunk-driving white men, a plaintive piano line creates a downbeat atmosphere. When the narrator and his brother reconnect, the music becomes more upbeat and groovy with a striding bass line. The only truly descriptive bit of scoring is a sardonic solo saxophone, whose mocking tone cleverly exacerbates the cruel laughter of the characters in one particular scene. It further doesn't help that we hear a recorded soundtrack rather than live musicians. The costs of hiring a band might be high, but without the presence of real players, the production undermines the most important symbol in the story and loses a key opportunity for theatricality. Only the presence of live gospel singing in a couple of scenes helps to bring the soundscape momentarily out of the shadows.

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?

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