Sunday, January 30, 2005

Johnnie Taylor is Gone - Karamu

Performances make 'JOHNNIE TAYLOR IS GONE' worth seeing

Each year Karamu holds the R. Joyce Whitley Festival of New Plays Arenafest. The last one was held in May of 2004. From the offerings, Gregory S. Carr's 'JOHNNIE TAYLOR IS GONE' was selected for inclusion in the theatre's regular 2005 season.

The play takes place in the Golden Zodiac Lounge, a bar in North St. Louis which appears to have outlived the high points of its existence. It is peopled by a group of "Old School" misfits. The music selected on the juke box centers on the "oldies" with special emphasis on Johnny Taylor who once stopped in at the lounge.

Who is Johnny Taylor? He was a real recording great. Despite Taylor's awesome run of hit records, he remains somewhat of an enigma, perhaps one of the most underrated recording artists of all time. His offerings embraced Gospel, Pop, Blues, Doo Wopp, Memphis Soul, and even Disco. His hits included: "Somewhere To Lay My Head," "I Had A Dream" and "I've Got To Love Somebody's Babe" and "What About My Love."

Every once in a while a theatrical offering overcomes a mediocre script with high production qualities. This is the case with 'JOHNNIE TAYLOR IS GONE.' This is not to say the script is bad, it just isn't the quality of works by such Black writers as Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson or LeRoy Jones.

Lots of topics are covered: black men dating white women, baseball, the Ku Klux Klan, politicians, UPN (under paid negroes), riots, the St. Louis black community, retirement, rap music, Presidents Bush and Clinton, old versus new styles of music, and Chinese food. But, in the end, this is probably more a set of character studies rather than a well-constructed play. There are no intriguing mysteries or conflicts, though some soap-opera like problems regarding relationships, financial needs and philosophical ideals are present.

With that said, Director Caroline Jackson Smith and her cast should be proud of the final outcome. In general, the characterizations are well honed so the play's humor comes across well and the audience left in a jovial mood.

Cornell Calhoun, III is excellent as the bar's proprietor. The character's stubborn streak of pride and purpose are well developed. Eva Withers-Evans, as a single mom and the chief bar-keep, targets in well on the woman's determination. Marvin A. Hayes is character-perfect as a henpecked bar patron, instantly becoming the audience's favorite. Hayes keeps delivering laugh line after laugh line with perfect interpretation. Though he shouts too much for the small theatre space, James Seward is good as one of the long-time patrons and Kenny Johnson is on target as the beer delivery person.

Many Black community members have been brought up in an interactive story-telling society. In church services they are encouraged to participate vocally. The Karamu audience takes their participant role seriously. They make comments regarding the statements and actions of the actors. They express pleasure and displeasure as they see fit. This breaking down of the traditional staid reactions of audience members at many theatres adds greatly to this production.

The show is being performed in Karamu's intimate Arena theatre, which is a perfect setting for the show. Be aware that if you sit at one of the tables on the main floor, you will be treated like a bar patron and given snacks and even maybe a bottle of beer.

apsule Judgment Black history month is upon us. Many theatres will be doing shows highlighting the plights and delights of Blacks in US history. You won't get a great history lesson, won't see a perfect play, but if you want to go to an offering and have fun, put 'JOHNNIE TAYLOR IS GONE' on your see list.