REVIEW: Confronting the past in “jazz singer”
Known as the first “talkie”—that is the first film with sound featuring synchronized music and dialogue—I first learned about the landmark 1927 film “The Jazz Singer” from my fifth-grade textbook.
It would be years before I found out that its star, Al Jolson, was a white man, a fact omitted in the caption underneath the photo of him grinning in blackface—an insidious theatrical tradition my ten-year-old self knew nothing about.
Ignorance of and inability to confront the past remain among the most nagging facts of American discourse, particularly when it concerns race. And so it is that I seek out any piece of theatre that interrogates our history and culture with an eye toward understanding, healing, and moving forward.
Now playing in a world premiere production at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, “jazz singer” does all three, featuring a group of artists grappling with making a piece of theatre about “The Jazz Singer” by examining the film’s roots in Jewish mythology, wrestling with its use of blackface, exploring vital themes of assimilation, appropriation, and atonement, and questioning its legacy.
The story of the film is set on the Lower East Side, so the Henry Street Settlement makes a perfect setting for this piece, commissioned by its core program, the Abrons Arts Center, and devised by Joshua William Gelb, who also directs, with Nehemiah Luckett, both of whom appear onstage alongside Cristina Pitter, Stanley Mathabane, and a different featured guest jazz musician at every performance.
“The Jazz Singer”—based on a story by Samson Raphaelson called “The Day of Atonement”—is a film about a Jewish “jazz crooner” who is forced to choose between his faith tradition and his dream of becoming a Broadway star. Ironically, as Mr. Luckett observes, there is no actual jazz in the film. Using a repeated set up—“there’s this story”—the trio of performers, aided by Mr. Mathabane who serves as an onstage sound designer, exhume the overlooked history surrounding the film in an attempt to get out from under the specter of blackface looming throughout.
The first half of the piece consists of Mr. Gelb, who is Jewish, and Mr. Luckett, who is African American, playing versions of themselves, with Ms. Pitter playing a composite character named “Tracey”, as they navigate the minefield of creating a piece of theatre about “The Jazz Singer” in the year 2019. The second half of the piece becomes a musical retelling of the film itself, with an original score by Mr. Luckett.
Ms. Pitter gives voice to Carolynne Snowden, the only black actor in the film who has no lines and stands with her back to the camera, while Mr. Luckett resurrects the performance of New Orleans Willie Jackson, a black stage performer who sang the film’s score live at its Harlem Lafayette premiere screening since the theatre was not equipped for the new technology of talkies. These fascinating stories blend with that musical retelling of the film’s plot, which comes dangerously close to the infamous blackface moment before retreating.
While it substantively evinces the feel of a work still in progress, the production design of “jazz singer” is impeccable and unimpeachable, with a stunning meta-theatrical art direction featuring sets by You-Shin Chen, lighting by Marika Kent, costumes by Rodrigo Muñoz, projections and video design by Lianne Arnold, and sound design by Mr. Mathabane and Kate Marvin. Together, these elements create an arresting multimedia mise-en-scène through which the story unfolds.
“jazz singer” is a challenging piece to observe. Richly researched and beautifully performed, it remains overly opaque at times, its meaning subterranean and point of view ambivalent—and yet, this piece inspires deep feeling and introspection. It is a work of jazz, embodying the two elements Ms. Pitter says are necessary for the form: musical history and human suffering.
No interrogation of our racial past can ever be neat and tidy, for the truth—like jazz—is anything but. At once illuminating and confounding, “jazz singer” achieves its mission.
Bottom Line: In “jazz singer” a group of artists grapple with making a piece of theatre about the film “The Jazz Singer” by examining its roots in Jewish mythology, wrestling with its use of blackface, exploring vital themes of assimilation, appropriation, and atonement, and questioning its legacy. While the piece substantively evinces the feel of a work still in progress, the production design is impeccable and unimpeachable, and its mission is achieved.
Abrons Arts Center
Henry Street Settlement
466 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: September 29, 2019
Final Performance: October 12, 2019