Toni Morrison’s ‘Jazz’ Makes Dazzling Stage Debut

A quarter century after Toni Morrison’s historical novel “Jazz” was published in 1992, the book has been transformed into a colorful, compelling stage play.  

Morrison’s tome, adapted by playwright Nambi E. Kelley –who was commissioned by Morrison’s team– and directed by British-born Kwame Kwei-Armah, has drawn enthusiastic crowds since making its world premiere in May at Baltimore Center Stage, the State Theater of Maryland.

The storyline follows Joe and Violet, young lovers at the turn of the 20th Century who leave the winding woods and fields of rural Virginia bound for Harlem. The fictional characters that Morrison, a Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner imagined—exemplify the estimated 1.5 million African Americans whose mass exodus from the South to industrialized cities formed the Great Migration.

“I wanted to recreate a migratory experience, an immigrant’s experience of movement to cities, when they were the places to go, when there were, as you say, infinite possibilities,” Morrison, now in her late eighties, revealed in a 1992 BBC interview. “Seeing oneself in numbers, so that you felt the security of one’s own family or kind.”

Over two decades, life proceeds for the married couple– intentionally childless with tragic plot twists—until Joe’s fascination with a vivacious young woman named Dorcas leads to an unwitting love triangle and a violent chain of events.

Along the way, the characters peel back layers, their alternating perspectives exposing flaws in ways that engender sympathy. Historical and cultural events–ranging from parades for Black veterans to race riots– are referenced  throughout the play, and time is showcased via period costumes and impressive set design.

“I’m a huge fan of Toni Morrison, and of ‘Jazz’ in particular. It’s an important chronicle of the human experience, and although it takes place in the 1920s, the story’s themes still resonatetoday,” said Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage. “I’m thrilled to direct such a talented group of actors and designers to bring playwright Nambi Kelley’s vision to life….”

Although “Jazz” isn’t a musical, there’s lively dancing and jazz rhythms to advance the plot. A live musician (trombonist Greg Boyer) makes periodic appearances to introduce key characters. The show comes alive on stage buoyed by a talented cast headed by actors Shanésia Davis (Violet) and Leon Addison Brown (Joe Trace).

“Jazz” was made possible in part by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and various benefactors. The production is slated to run through Sunday; a spokeswoman said it wasn’t yet clear whether the show will tour other cities.

You can catch “Jazz” at the Baltimore Center Stage through June 25.