A BLACK MAN NAMED JOE
I should have been a mess when I left the theater. Jackie Taylor's play about her brother, A Black Man Named Joe, hits a little too close to home. Like her brother, my cousin was killed by a drunk driver. He too was 29 years old. While my cousin didn't experience the hardships of Cabrini-Green, like Joe he was just beginning to flourish in his life.
But I left the play quite clear-eyed. A Black Man Named Joe is certainly moving, if for no other reason than the love that's gone into it--one sister wrote, produced, and directed, and another portrays herself in the play. But it reveals very little either of Joe's life or of his family's grief. And it's difficult to mourn for people you don't know.
Part of the problem lies in the structure of the script. The first act takes place on the night Joe is killed. Scenes alternate between the family's reactions and Joe's story, which he tells himself from a vantage point in the Great Beyond. From his family we learn that he was deeply loved and that his life was finally getting back on track. From Joe we learn his philosophy of life, peppered with anecdotes. But we're never given anything but hints as to how his life had gone off-course. Joe's vibrant personality comes through loud and clear, but his actual story remains hidden. I still don't know what he did for a living, though it's often stated that he had a job. I don't know what happened to his wife and children, though I know he had them. I don't know the extent of his involvement with gangs and drugs, though I know there was some. In the first act I really don't find out much about Joe Taylor at all, except that he was fun to be around and his family misses him.
The second act does nothing to answer these questions. It has three segments. The first is a Taylor Christmas when Joe was still alive. It is full of joy--the family puts on its annual show--but still tells us nothing except that Joe liked Elvis and that the entire family is theatrical. Second, Joe gives a little pep talk before he disappears forever, telling everyone that he loves them and it hurts to see them sad. Finally the family deliver a eulogy that reiterates their devotion to Joe.
It's ironic that the clearly intense emotion that drove Taylor to write A Black Man Named Joe seems to have stopped her from actually telling his story. Paying tribute to her brother, she seems unwilling to show us his dark side, the side he was just winning the battle against when he was killed. But it is precisely this battle that makes him interesting. We can't understand Joe's changes if we don't know where he's been. But Joe remains a charming stranger. And the family's reaction--overwhelming grief--tells us nothing about them, either.
The Black Ensemble gives A Black Man Named Joe an uneven production. Oddly the staging is geared to a proscenium house, though the space is a marvelous arena. So unless you're seated in the center section, your view will be obstructed by actors off to the side. The performers' abilities run the gamut, though most are able. Joe Plummer is phenomenal as Joe--his personal charm and voracious energy tell us far more about Joe Taylor than the words he speaks. Plummer makes even platitudes and catch phrases ("You live by the gun, you die by the gun") seem fresh and alive. He also does a fabulous Elvis impersonation. Gussie Taylor Ross, Joe's real-life sister, is equally vibrant. Although one would expect the evening to be emotionally difficult for her, Ross never bogs down in sentimentality or grief (unlike most of the others, who sob their way through half the script). As a result her character comes across as the most powerful force in the family, the only one who truly tries to cope with the situation. Her stoicism brought more tears to my eyes than all the sobbing of the others. Ross and Plummer also have exquisite singing voices--the highlights of the family Christmas scene and of other moments throughout the show.
Strangely enough, the weakest performance comes from Carol Hall, playing sister Janice. Janice, clearly based on Jackie Taylor herself, has artistic talents that are constantly discussed within the family--and Jackie Taylor, who's founder and artistic director of the Black Ensemble, has proved herself a formidable talent in many aspects of the business. So it's odd that Taylor would get someone to portray her who can't play guitar, as the script calls for, and who has a weak singing voice. If she can sing, in this performance her sentimentality gets the better of her, for what comes out is shaky and often off-key. Also, the script indicates that Janice completely denies her brother's death. Even after her niece has viewed the body, Janice questions whether it's really Joe or just someone who looks like him. Hall's pain seems genuine. Her tears in the closing number look heartfelt. But the denial and subsequent flood of grief indicated in the script for Janice are dramatically stronger than Hall's constant fervent sorrow.
The last song in the show, "Just Joe," is emotionally overwhelming for the entire cast. I would have liked to see Plummer come back at this point and sing Joe's words to his family, rather than see the family struggle to keep it together enough to sing them. Perhaps then we'd be allowed to feel the sorrow now appropriated by the cast members. It's touching to see people cry onstage. But it's far more moving to watch them struggle not to cry.
The strong personal sentiments behind A Black Man Named Joe give the play power. And I hope that it's provided some catharsis to the family to have given the world this little glimpse of their brother. But I would have liked to have known Joe Taylor better.