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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

"The Mojo and The Sayso" stars Marvette Knight and Gavin Lawrence. (PHOTO: Ross Zentner)

"The Mojo and The Sayso" delivers a searing look at coping with the worst grief

"What happened that night?" "What happened that night?"

A lead in, certainly, to a mystery, one to be solved at the end of a night as the audience finally goes, "Oh, yeah. That's what happened that night."

The question is part and parcel of the poetic "The Mojo and The Sayso," the comedy/drama that opened in the Milwaukee Rep's Stiemke Theater under the co-production of the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble and Madison's Theatre Lila.

The event prompting the question was the shooting of a black boy by a drunk plainclothes cop in New York. The boy, Linus, and his father Acts (Gavin Lawrence) were walking before dawn, on their way to Acts' job at an automobile junkyard.

There is a temptation to look at "Mojo" as a play about the horrors of the shootings of black kids by white cops in recent years. It could be the poster play for Black Lives Matter, given that this is a production by a black theater company under a residency with The Milwaukee Rep.

The whole joint effort is laudable, and there is hope that these kinds of cooperative efforts expand and continue in our city. But this play is not about Black Lives Matter or about police brutality or even, necessarily, the black experience.

This is a play about family, about grief, about loss, about coping when the absolute worst possible thing in the world happens to you. It's about finding everybody's truth about "what happened that night."

The family includes Acts, his wife Awilda (Marvette Knight) and son Walter (Isayah Phillips) who was Linus' big brother. And the way they have each tried to deal with the grief is stark.

Acts is building a car in their living room. The car dominates the warm and homey set of a family living in Jamaica, Queens, which is presumably where the play is set. The design by Christopher Dunham is so profound and special that the car becomes its own character in the play. It not only dominates the room, but it dominates lives – both Acts' and Awilda's.

Awilda has chosen the path of religious faith as the succor for her pain. She has pledged her devotion to a pastor (Wigasi Brant). She lights candles for a particular mood that she believes will help her get through yet another day. Before she goes to church, she searches for her white gloves to match her dress, shoes and purse. It would be easy to see this as a symbol of sort, but it's better to just assume that this is a woman searching for some order in the daily chaos that is her life.

The relationship between husband and wife has, like most relationships, its ups and downs. She feels neglected by his work on the car. He feels spurned by her relationship with the pastor. He shouts, and she is shocked by his brutality. She loves to reminisce about their walk down the street together. He loves to reminisce about the night he first saw her. He holds her, tenderly. She gently places a hand on his shoulder.

And then there is Walter.

His mother describes him as being a young man with a "bomb for a heart and a grenade for a soul." He calls himself "Blood," instead of Walter. He carries a gun and a knife. His vision of a man has taken hold, and he's trying to come to grips with what he thinks he should be.

"I would have liked to walk in the courtroom where they acquitted the cop that shot my brother in the back with my guns drawn and announce, 'Alright, gentlemen. I'm taking over.'"

This four-person cast under the direction of Theatre Lila's Jessica Lanius is a marvelous ensemble. Lawrence and Knight absolutely crackle with a kind of electric energy that lights the stage and demands close attention. Phillips captures the conflicted young man who either wants to be a killer or a help to his mother and father. And Brant is the slithery and sanctimonious embodiment of the predator in a preacher's clothes.

The scene between Phillips and Brant near the end of the play is one of the most chilling I've ever seen on a stage, reminiscent of the brutality seen in "Trainspotting."

Opening night was a triumph for Bronzeville. It was a capacity crowd on a Thursday night for a play centered around a pressing social issue.

But the real triumph has almost nothing to do with being black, white or any other color.

The real triumph is that given this opportunity, this company, under the brilliance of Producing Artistic Director Malkia Stampley, delivered a compelling evening of theater that can stand with any company in this city.

As they late Muddy Waters sang, "They got their mojo workin'"

"The Mojo and The Sayso" runs only through Jan. 30 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Production Credits: Director Jessica Lanius; Assistant Director, Karl Iglesias, Scenic Design, Christopher dunham; Lighting Design, Nick Belley; Sound Design, GW Rodriguez; Assistant Sound Design, Ike Yen; Costume Design, Sheri Williams Pannell; Props Design, Madelyn Yee; Technical Director, Brian Miracle; Stage Manager, Martinique Barthel-Steer; Assistant Stage Manager, Jenniuer Latimore; Wardrobe Manager, Torrine Davis; Scenie Carpentnter, Jeff Holub; The Rep Resident Crew; Dave Hicks; Master Electrician, Brian Hatfield.


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