nytheatre.com review by Jeffrey Lewonczyk
March 19, 2005
There’s a lot of talk in Eyewitness Blues, a new theatre piece written by Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp, co-founders of the hip-hop theatre troupe Universes. And talk is a fine basis for theatre, as long as it’s sharp and incisive, or at least entertaining. However, despite its title, Eyewitness Blues does a lot of telling with little to show for it.
The show’s conceit is that a rising trumpet star by the name of Junior McCullough (Sapp) has momentarily “lost his breath” before an audience; as his life flashes before his eyes (as such lives tend to), a flamenco-dancing muse who specializes in trumpeters (Ruiz) battles to help him get it back. This back-and-forth is presented as a kind of verbal duet between the two performers in the no-man’s-land of McCullough’s subconscious, interspersed with flashes of music, singing, and dance.
The journey of the troubled artist is well-worn territory, and this one includes many of the obligatory stops, such as the home of McCullough’s dysfunctional family and the vibrant Bronx neighborhood he left behind on his search for fame, money, and purpose. At various junctures both Sapp and Ruiz channel the personas that populate his past, such as McCullough’s parents, a salacious old hag, and the benevolent African immigrant who was the only one who truly understood the young artist.
Familiar stuff, in other words, but with its hip-hop trappings it occasionally threatens to become more interesting. As the houselights came on after the show, the gentleman sitting next to me stood up and solemnly announced to his wife, “Too much rapping.” I don’t think there was enough. The text, an intertwining drone of sketchy monologues in the overcooked, declamatory style that passes for poetry in so many quarters these days, lacks the spontaneity, stylization, and playfulness of rap, or any kind of successful pop music for that matter. Rather than being energized by this ceaseless flow of verbiage, I found myself mostly bored, with little incentive to care about either of the two characters on the stage.
There are moments that rise above the monotony, of course: for instance, a feverish sequence in which McCullough describes his own imaginary death at the hands of a Wynton Marsalis drive-by (with Ken Burns in shotgun, filming the whole thing), followed by a comic funeral that serves as a biting satire of contemporary jazz. But for the most part the language only flirts with resonance and specificity; the words keep coming, but they never add up to anything new or meaningful.
All of which would be less problematic if the performances managed to overcome the limitations of the text. Ruiz has a somewhat prosaic presence for a muse; she’s pleasant enough to watch and listen to, but she falls wide of the mythic, and the harder she tries the less convincing she is. Sapp has a more energetic presence, especially during some of the flashier scenes in which he stomps and seethes in furious confusion, but his efforts to inhabit figures from McCullough’s past are shaky, with the side effect that his main role of McCullough comes off as all the more indistinct.
There are also problems with director Talvin Wilks’s staging, which never ties all these impressionistic elements into a satisfying whole. He’s not helped in this task by NYTW’s current thrust stage setup: having to play separately to each third of the audience in turn prevents Sapp and Ruiz from embracing the audience whole, which would have been an immense benefit to such a fractured drama. A case could probably be made that this fragmentation is an essential aspect of McCullough’s story, but I’d wager that there are far more effective ways of displaying it.
Instead, I found myself drawn to the music (credited to Antoine Drye, Paul Jonathan Thompson, and Carlos Pimentel) and sound design (by Darron L. West and Bray Poor). Crisply and confidently performed in cozy little living-room areas on the sidelines by Drye and Thompson (one of whom dresses and plays in the mode of Louis Armstrong, the other in that of Miles Davis), the score spans a wide range of territory, from electronica to jazz to the flamenco that supports the Muse’s more arbitrary-feeling efforts to win McCullough back to art.
The rest of the production is as polished and professional as the music—scenic designer Narelle Sissons’s sumptuous red curtains and giant mirrors give the room an electric atmosphere which is enhanced by Heather Carson’s flashy lighting design. However, these trappings aren’t able to mask the fact that the show consists primarily of two people on the stage speaking words that, in one variation or other, we’ve already heard many times before.