Before It Hits Home, Congo Square Theatre Company, at Chicago Dramatists. Half of this show is exceptional--Congo Square Theatre Company, a new group, bears watching. But after a surefooted setup, the play loses its way. A bisexual African-American jazz musician contracts AIDS, and no sooner is the revelation made to his family than everyone begins to shout and sob--and they all continue to do so for the rest of the evening. Director Anthony "Amiri" Edwards may have hoped to conceal playwright Cheryl L. West's failure to develop her characters, but the result is that they simply erupt into stereotype: the weak gay man, the implacable matriarch, the father whose crust conceals boundless tenderness. And the unvarying volume of the second-act performances causes the audience to shrink away from characters they once embraced.
Among the many pleasures of the first act are the magnetic performances of Javon Johnson as Wendal, the musician, and accomplished 17-year-old saxophonist William Robert Porter, who plays Wendal's music. There isn't a weak link in the cast, and they're well directed until the script turns relentlessly tragic. The production's religious images are particularly strong: the final moment, with Wendal clasped in the arms of his father (Willie B. Goodson), evokes a pieta, while Logan Shunmugam's use of scrims in the set beautifully suggests seeing through a glass darkly. The music--both recorded (chosen by Edwards and sound designer Larry Nance) and sung (especially by Taron Patton)--is glorious.