REVIEW: “Jump” at the Paul Robeson Theatre
By ANTHONY CHASE
Charly Evon Simpson’s play, Jump, is a poetic work about a young woman named Fay whose life and family are in transition. The non-linear story seems, at first, to be about the family’s reaction to the death of Fay’s mother. As they sort through their mother’s belongings and reminisce, Fay and her sister, Judy, discuss their father’s plans for the family home, which has a view of “the bridge.”
There are clues that the waters beneath the surface of these characters’ lives are turbulent. The sisters’ conversation is superficial, sometimes trivial, and Dad seems to be self-medicating with whiskey. There are limits to what the members of this ostensibly close-knit family seem able to share.
Indeed, all is not as it seems, and relationships shift as family members realize and express their private and often intense thoughts.
Simpson’s play was inspired by a 2003 article in the “New Yorker” magazine about people who have survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Among the details that haunted the playwright was the terrifying fact that survivors often regret their decision to jump in midair.
According to the article by Tad Friend, one severely depressed jumper said, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable --except for having just jumped.”
The play has a very classy pedigree. It was developed during a residency at SPACE on Ryder Farm, a 127-acre, 225 year old family farm in Putnam County, north of New York City, where artists are free to create as they wish and are required only to “attend three communal meals each day, share what they’ve developed while in residence at the culmination of their residency, and give back three to four hours” working the organic farm. See https://www.spaceonryderfarm.org/ ; it’s amazing. The play was further developed during National New Play Network’s 2017 play workshop (see http://nnpn.org/); and also as a new play workshop at Chautauqua Theater Company in 2018.
The Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center offers a leisurely paced production, under the direction of Paulette D. Harris.
Aqueira Oshun gives an emotionally powerful performance as Fay. We clearly see her journey of realization. That path pivots on the suicide of her sister, and her father’s hurtful observation that Fay seemed the more likely to commit the deed.
As “Dad,” Andy Finley is a model of parental (and we presume marital) cluelessness. This is the classic example of a man who loses his identity and his link to his own children with the death of his wife, their mother. Simpson skillfully feeds him the language of his own frailty and inability to process his situation, beyond his determination to sell the home that was really his wife’s idea all along. His words collide with Fay with an impact that actually clears the way for the play’s resolution. Findley affects all of this while remaining forgivable and even lovable, despite (and perhaps because of) the character's palpable imperfections.
In addition to words, Simpson fills the world of her play with objects that reverberate with symbolic import: a violin that mother hated to play, but on which she performed home recitals, nonetheless. Shoes. Flowers. The color blue. And, of course, the ultimate symbolic image, the bridge that dominates Al Garrison’s set, and toward which all the characters gravitate. This set, expressionistically lit, effectively places us in an unstable and disconnected environment, through which the characters must precariously find their way.
There is a fourth character from outside the family unit, Hopkins, a troubled young man who Fay meets on the bridge. The two develop a complicated bond as Fay returns for weekly visits. They begin to see their life situations and recent events through the lens of the impulse to help and befriend each other. By talking to each other, Fay and Hopkins gain perspective on themselves.
In some productions, a white actor has played the Hopkins. Here, African American actor Marcus Thompson Jr. plays the role. Interestingly, while the race of the other characters is specified in the script, the race of the Hopkins is specifically left open. It is interesting to contemplate how a choice, one way or another, might or might not affect reactions to the play. On the one hand, the choice removes racial difference as a possible complicating consideration, as these characters contemplate life’s most essential question. The issue here is not just the meaning of life, by why we go on living at all.
Thompson cuts a charismatic figure as Hopkins, and in his spirited and focused performance he provides Fay with an equal sparring partner. Each challenges the other with questions about what draws them back to the bridge. Through these conversations, the bridge takes on metaphoric importance as a path that connects people or places separated by a gap or obstacle.
There is a temptation to discuss the play merely as a cautionary tale and a call to mental health awareness, but as a work of considerable artistry, it is so much more. A 2003 magazine article might have inspired Simpson to begin her play, but once her imagination was ignited, she exceeded the expanse of any article as she delves into the murky contours of motivations that her characters do not even understand themselves.
The most mysterious character of the play is elusive sister Judy, played with ethereal calm by Dayane Araujo. On occasion, Araujo punctuates Judy’s placid exterior with a flash of her stormy interior, before pulling those emotions back inside. Among her most emotionally redolent moments are those that occur in conversation with her sister after her death, when Fay uncontrollable assigns language to her sister that never occurred in life. Before evaporating into the either, Judy reminds her sister that everything that has just happened is just in her imagination.
This play reminds us that so much of our lives exists only in our imaginations as we fill in the missing elements of incomplete narratives. Why did mother do this? Why does one character smoke and another vape? Did that even happen?
Curtis Johnson has provided a marvelously evocative sound design for this play. He shifts us from location to location and from mood to mood without our even noticing.
Playwright Simpson once noted, after listening to audience reactions to her play at a production in Florida, that she seems to be a northern playwright. She opined that her play seems to go better in places where people talk fast. While this production gains from the manner in which the actors savor words and emotional moments, at two hours, it loses something in the way of urgency and momentum. Still, this is a handsome production that admirably showcases Simpson’s work with very moving performances, and that is sure to linger in your memory.
Jump continues through February 9, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m. at the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave. (716-884-2013). www.aaccbuffalo.org