Mr. Joy, which is thought of as a sequel of sorts to Daniel Beaty’s first popular solo work, Emergency!, illuminated the stage for a packed house on Friday, January 30. Emergency!, which told the story of a slave ship arising out of present-day New York’s Hudson River, used strategies such as slam poetry, song, and multi-character transformation to portray the characters’ varied commentary on their own personal identity and freedom. Beaty revisited some of the characters from his original piece, while adding several new voices that were nothing short of enthrallingly independent and unknowingly broken all at the same time.
The stage setting for Mr. Joy revolved around a screen in the background, which opened by projecting images of various streets, buildings, and people in inner-city Harlem. Before the show’s sole performer, Tangela Large, enters the scene we are shown several faces of young children, which sets the stage perfectly for her opening performance of the young and impressionable Clarissa.
Clarissa is by far one of the most animated characters in Beaty’s set. She spends her days working in Mr. Joy’s shoe shop and learning from him and the rest of the characters about living, loving, and working in Harlem. She seems old enough to understand the lessons of Mr. Joy, but young enough not to be jaded by the broken system she lives in. As we begin to adore this sweet girl and her playful stories, the harsh truth behind her unfortunate situation begins to unfold.
Clarissa’s grandmother Bessie has had to raise Clarissa on her own due to both of her parents dying from AIDS. Clarissa has inherited this condition, which causes them both to spend countless hours rearranging schedules, remembering pills, and visiting the hospital. While Bessie doesn’t spend too much time talking about Clarissa’s parents, she does spend a fair amount of time discussing the recent influx of crime in her neighborhood and her dislike for the Chinese people who are beginning to “take over” Harlem business. To me, Bessie represented the member of the older generation that we often encounter, who “grew up differently” and “doesn’t know any better.” Does that make it okay, though?
DeShawn is a beautifully spoken word smith who wonderfully ties several of the characters together. He has a brilliant creative spark, which is portrayed through a carefully crafted poem detailing the struggles he faces living in the inner-city. We undoubtedly hope for the best for DeShawn, but soon see his surroundings bring out the worst.
Mr. Joy’s son John Lee is quick to judge an entire race by his experience with a few members as we see so often happen to individuals in our society. He is overworked and overstressed, which causes him to take his aggression out on those he stereotypes and those he believes to be stereotyping him.
Rebecca is a middle-aged white woman who gets everything, except struggle. She boasts of dating John Lee’s boss, Clifford. She claims the fact that she is dating Clifford could never make her racist although her entire dialogue is littered with racist undertones. As a white woman, Rebecca’s character made me stop and think “wait, I’m nothing like that.” But then again, is anyone really like the stereotypes that are placed on them without their say?
Peter is Clarissa’s young boyfriend who stops by the shop on occasion to sing her a song or do something she describes as “nerdy.” We are never fully made aware of Peter’s race, which I believe represented the effortless ability of young people to see past skin color. Peter’s character also wonderfully complimented the vibrant youth of Clarissa.
Rebecca’s wealthy boyfriend Clifford owns his own property management business. We catch him in the midst of a therapy session where he spends most of his time reflecting on the choices made by his son turned daughter, Ashes, who used inheritance money given to her by Clifford to complete her sex change. Clifford refuses to speak to Ashes because of this, but is clearly struggling between what he has been raised to believe as appropriate and the hardship of losing his child.
Ashes also seems to be struggling with the loss of her father, but covers her pain with outrageous stories and lavish expressions. While she strives to express her identity as a woman we see her second guessing what her life would’ve been like if she would’ve conformed to what her father wanted instead of what she felt to be right.
James was not a major character in this performance, but an important one nonetheless. As the screen behind him fades to dark and dingy streets we see a man who has let his surroundings completely wear him down from the creative artist he once was to a jaded street dweller. We are left only to hope that DeShawn doesn’t follow a similar path.
While he is never seen in the actual performance, Mr. Joy is referenced by all of the characters to be an outstanding man with the utmost of class. He treats every character, no matter their race, as an equal and seems to be the type of person all of his counterparts wish they could be. The characters are all brilliantly connected through him and the shoes that he fixes for them whether they realize it or not.
Large was nothing short of brilliant in her portrayal of these extremely diverse and dynamic characters. Only a few props including shoes, a lunch box, and a sketch book were used, which only further demonstrated her ability to breathe a new life into each of the character’s she portrayed. She was able to navigate through the vibrant youth of Clarissa to the jaded attitude of James with ease making you feel like you were truly experiencing different performers every time. The images on the screen also perfectly complimented the complex portrayals happening around the extremely diverse areas within Harlem.
With recent events in Ferguson and incidents involving Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, this eye-opening performance couldn’t have been released at more appropriate time. It allows us to see up close and personal the inequality that ravishes several social groups in our society and the lasting effects it can have on our ever-impressionable youth who either overcome this racial disparity or are forced to succumb to it.
Mr. Joy, World Premiere presented by City Theatre Company
Written by Daniel Beaty
Directed by Lou Jacob
Photo credits Kristi Jan Hoover
Runs through February 15, tickets can be purchased here.
Special thanks to City Theatre for two complimentary press tickets.
Performance Date: January 30, 2015