A scene from "Jazz," a play adapted from a novel by Toni Morrison (Courtesy photo)
A scene from "Jazz," a play adapted from a novel by Toni Morrison (Courtesy photo)

Author Toni Morrison’s written works are not the easiest to transform into other formats, but the adaptation of her 1992 novel “Jazz” into a theatrical work has raised the artistic level of Baltimore’s Center Stage to new heights of excellence and innovation.

Playwright Nambi E. Kelley adapted the work for the stage in a production that not only remains true to Morrison’s storyline, but also retains the surrealistic elements and nonlinear storytelling that are hallmarks of the novelist’s renowned books.

Telling the story of Joe Trace (Leon Addison Brown) and his wife Violet (Shanésia Davis), who moved north from rural Virginia to Harlem at the turn of the century, “Jazz” is a classic tale of the Great Migration, as many Southern blacks relocated to urban settings in pursuit of better lives.

But Joe and Violet’s married life takes an unexpected turn when they settle in Harlem and Joe becomes enamored with a youthful woman, Dorcas (Jasmine Batchelor). Their affair begins when Joe meets her while selling beauty products as a door-to-door salesmen.

Initially willing to entertain the older man, Dorcas interests quickly turn to young dandy Acton (Warner Miller, who also plays the young Joe) and she consequently rebuffs Joe’s advances. Unable to have her, Joe chooses to shoot Dorcas in cold blood rather than live without her.

The play delves into the psychological dysfunction that grips Violet, Dorcas and Joe in a triangle of tragedy and madness. Told through a multiplicity of perspectives, the ensemble creatively inserts the subtly varied recollections of the events into a dreamscape scenario, skillfully interpreted by a masterfully interchangeable set designed by Tim Mackabee.

“Different challenges have been posed by the structure of ‘Jazz’ the novel,” Kelley writes about her experience bringing the novel to stage. “What I have tried to do is actually honor that, the intention of ‘Jazz’ as the organizing principle for the material. The question is, what is my ‘Jazz’? The process of discovering that has been a journey.”

The ensemble is small, yet powerful with several of the actors playing dual roles. Jasmine Carmichael plays the young Violet and also Felice, Dorcas’ friend. Michele Shay takes on the roles of Alice Manfred, Dorcas’ aunt, and True Belle, Violet’s mother. Avery Whitfield plays the amusing parrot, a gift Joe gives Violet to substitute for his absence, and also the historical figure Golden Gray, the mulatto child of Joe Trace’s adoptive father, Henry Lestory (Jason Bowen).

Benja Kay Thomas, who plays Malvonne and Gregory Boyer, the trombonist who makes intermittent appearances and keeps the theme of jazz ever-present, completes the ensemble.

“I’m a huge fan of Toni Morrison, and ‘Jazz’ in particular,” said Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah. “It’s an important chronicle of the human experience, and although it takes place in the 1920s, the story’s theme still resonates today.

“I’m thrilled to direct such a talented group of actors and designers to bring Playwright Nambi Kelley’s vision to life on the stage in Baltimore,” he said.

“Jazz” plays at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, through June 25. For ticket information, go to www.centerstage.org or call 410-332-0033.

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