Sweet Grassmarket (Venue 18), Edinburgh
2-25 August 2018
Coming direct from a season in New York, Monica Bauer’s two-hander play is running at the Sweet Grassmarket this month. It’s based on real-life events and covers timely themes such as conflicts about race and the growing feeling of revolution in communities – as well as universally relatable areas such as family, music and finding your passion.
Thirteen-year-old Omaha resident Vivian loves jazz, but her mum makes sure her records are kept safely locked away, where only she can listen to them. What she does share with her daughter are her memories of the local nightlife – more specifically, the Dreamland Ballroom. Her mum fondly remembers its heyday; though it’s been closed up for years, recently it seems to have come back to life. Vivian’s 16-year-old boyfriend Dwayne also loves jazz, but his involvement with the Black Panthers casts a shadow over their relationship.
Luigi Wells left Omaha a long time ago when his mother insisted he follow the music inside him rather than stay and marry the girl he got pregnant… He’d finally made it in New York when his mother died, and it forced him to return to Omaha to take care of some business. And the most important thing to see to? The fate of the Dreamland Ballroom.
Playwright Bauer has created an intriguing and compelling production, beginning with two seemingly unlinked stories (alternating the storyteller) and as time goes on you can feel the plots begin to converge; little hints are dotted throughout the monologues until Bauer finally confirms why these two people are here. She masterfully teases out their backgrounds, developing the characters all the while and adding more colour to their tales.
Some sections are punctuated with a little of the jazz that both characters so love, bringing an extra dimension to proceedings. It does feel a little inconsistent not to do this between each scene, though the pieces are chosen carefully and relate to what’s been said before. It’s a nice touch that, when the pair do slightly interact, that it links back to the music and their shared connection. Glory Kadigan’s direction is slick and keeps up a good pace – the content has been finely judge to provide as much variety as possible in such a show, with one female and one male actor taking turns to speak (plus the addition of music).
Russell Jordan brings shedloads of charm & charisma to the character of Luigi, believable as a lifelong jazz musician – and perfecting the mannerisms of the other people in his side of the story (most entertainingly his mother). Kailah S. King begins all wide-eyed & smiley as Vivian, full of the joys of her teenage years and her growing love of jazz – though as tensions begin to escalate in Omaha (and with Dwayne), her youthful naïvety and fear make for a very moving end.
Vivian’s Music, 1969
Photo credit: John Fico
My verdict? A timely play about a period in modern history that may be unfamiliar to many, with dangerously pertinent themes – the performances are engaging and moving.