Above: Nicole C. Julien is Miss Ssippi in The Cutting Ball Theater/Playwrights Foundation production of Marcus Gardley’s …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi. Below: David Westley Skillman is The Great Tree/Jesus and Aldo Billingslea is Damascus. Photos by Rob Melrose.
Quilts and buttons are stars and stories in Marcus Gardley’s deeply lyrical, undeniably beautiful …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, now at the EXIT on Taylor in a co-production of The Cutting Ball Theater and Playwrights Foundation.
On the theatrical spectrum, this is the exact opposite of the sitcom-ready Sunset and Margaritas now at TheatreWorks (read my review of that play in the Palo Alto Weekly here), which is to say this is challenging, thought-provoking material given the kind of sharply etched production that inspires curiosity and wonder. There’s nothing easy about Moonwalks, and that’s a good thing. Gardley, working with director Amy Mueller, weaves myth, folklore, American Civil War history, personal family history and musings on race in this country.
That’s a lot to fold into a nearly 2 1/2-hour production, but Gardley and Mueller do it with the assistance of a fantastic set (by Michael Locher) that represents the night sky with buttons and plants an ominous hangman’s tree in the planks of the floor. The small but versatile stage (beautifully lit by Heather Basarab) is a battlefield after the siege of Vicksburg, a shattered Louisiana plantation and, most amazingly, the soul of the mighty Mississippi River.
Nicole C. Julien plays Miss Ssippi, the embodiment of the river that wends its way more than 2,300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. She sings like a soulful angel (with sterling backup by her chorus, Rebecca Frank, Halili Knox and Erica Richardson), and she refuses to take sides in the divisive war raging around her. But like a goddess in the Greek tradition, she does take an interest in human lives and isn’t afraid to lend a helping hand (wave?) and assist in leading folks to their fate.
In Gardley’s story, a freed slave named Damascus (a riveting Aldo Billingslea) is searching for his beloved, a slave named Poem (pronounced po-EMM). But Damascus is captured by Confederate soldiers and hanged from that terrifying tree. Jesus (in the form of David Westley Skillman, who occasionally tries to moonwalk to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”) decides to resurrect Damascus so he can continue his quest, but now the strapping man will be a woman named Demeter (echoes of the Demeter-Persephone myth here), and she has an extremely limited time to find Poem before death comes calling for real this time.
Damascus/Demeter is led to the ramshackle Verse plantation, where Cadence Marie Verse (a fierce Jeanette Harrison) is attempting to keep her daughters (Erika A. McCrary and Sarah Mitchell) and home together even though all her slaves have fled except for house servant Brer Bit (Martin F. Grizzell Jr.), who has a grand plan of his own (and it’s not good for his mistress).
There’s a tangled tale of romance and betrayal coursing through this plantation, so it’s hardly surprising that Damascus/Demeter’s fate lands her at this particular front door, where a Confederate roamer (David Sinaiko) and a shamed Yankee soldier (Zac Schuman) enter the fray.
It’s the story that compels, but it’s Gardley’s writing that fascinates. Interspersed amid some gorgeous spirituals, Gardley pours poetry over the drama and lets it cascade like water down a fall. The rhymes and images are so plentiful it would take a second viewing to appreciate them all.
Powerful, mesmerizing and complete with bolts of humor and tragedy, …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi is an intimate epic that pulses with power and beauty.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
…and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi continues an extended run through April 25 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800 838-3006 or visit www.cuttingball.com.