The Great Defeat of Coltrane Grey
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
August 15, 2004
The spirit of August Wilson hovers over Brian Tucker’s lyrical and affecting drama, The Great Defeat of Coltrane Grey. Tucker’s characters are urban African Americans in a dead end world. There are flashes of poetry, earthy humor and violence. The characters are steeped in music—jazz, R&B, and gospel. Best of all, like August Wilson, Tucker is able to write characters we care about.
Coltrane Grey (Jas Anderson), a tormented young poet, returns home to his South Side Chicago neighborhood in 1987, after an unexplained absence of more than five years. His arrival proves a catalyst in the lives of others—particularly his old girlfriend Naima (Nedra McClyde), his mother Evelyn (Maisha Meloncon), and a former neighbor Boogaloo (Michael Alexis Palmer.) In a series of terse scenes, Coltrane shakes his family and neighbors out of their boozy, defeated complacency as the play underscores the bitter joke of 1980s trickle-down Reaganomics. There’s nothing new about the set-up and viewpoints, but Tucker’s bracing honesty and compassion for his characters lift this play above the usual.
Playwrights who direct their own works are often asking for trouble, but Tucker avoids the traps. He wisely keeps the production to a bare minimum, emphasizing acting and text. His touch with the performances feels deft and sensitive.
The acting is fine across the board. As the college graduate who can’t choose between staying and going, McClyde fills the richness of the text with an equally rich emotional life. As the wino Boogaloo, Palmer is also effective, especially in a climactic scene where he refuses to share his memories of Coltrane’s father.
As the title character, Jas Anderson has a difficult part. Coltrane speaks in long, raging soliloquies—jazz riffs—and Tucker’s writing is not as strong here as in the dialogue scenes. Tucker keeps Coltrane’s present motivations and past history murky and unclear, which doesn’t help. Anderson is a good actor and works hard, but has not yet made this tricky character gel.
Coltrane Grey could use some editing, (but I usually feel the same way about August Wilson.) The violent ending feels strained and arbitrary, rather than the logical end for these people. But these are quibbles. The Great Defeat of Coltrane Grey has a real voice and a human heart at its core.