Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz mirrors the ensemble structure of the music. The novel requires us, in the words of Ralph Ellison, to listen “on the lower frequencies” to hear and understand the different sides of the characters’ stories. Also like jazz, Morrison’s novel gives voice to a particular black experience, and shows that understanding it can require shifting the audience’s perceptions.
Likewise playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s work hinges on developing devices to help audiences to see black characters, and the real people they represent, with fresh eyes. As with her adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son for Court Theatre and American Blues Theater in Chicago in 2014, her play based on Morrison’s Jazz for Center Stage in Baltimore (May 19-June 25), helmed by artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, stages the interplay between racially specific perception and socially produced reality.
An accomplished actor from the South Side of Chicago, Kelley is familiar to Windy City audiences for performances at Goodman Theatre in The Good Negro, The Ballad of Emmett Till, Crumbs From the Table of Joy, and Drowning Crow. (They may also know her, as we all might, from her frequent TV work.) Kelley’s artistic statement explains how her acting informs her overall theatre practice: “I am an art practitioner. I practice art from the moment I awake and even while I sleep.”
In a telephone interview, she elaborated. “At my core I’m kinesthetic, so sometimes when I’m writing I approach things kinesthetically; I see how something feels in my body.” Her ability to gut check—to tap into the feeling an artistic work produces, and the ways in which communicating that feeling shapes the physical body—informed her adaptions of both Native Son and Jazz.
Kelley’s adaptation of Native Son shifts focus from the environmental factors that motivate protagonist Bigger Thomas’s actions to the internal struggle that he faces. In so doing, it repositions the mission of the work, from an indictment of American racism to a reevaluation of how racism shapes Bigger’s humanity.
Before adapting Wright’s mid-20th-century crime thriller about the overwhelming social pressures that drive a young man to kill two women, Kelley had a long and intimate relationship with the text. She first encountered Wright’s novel as a youth and, given the novel’s Chicago setting, felt a deep connection to the story. Having the chance to adapt it for the stage served as a 360-degree experience, bringing her back to one of her first literary loves.
The chance to adapt Morrison’s majestic novel was more a case of happenstance. After the success of Native Son, Dramatic Publishing approached Kelley about adapting another novel, writer and title unnamed. Not knowing the specifics of the project, she submitted her résumé and moved on to other work. Weeks later she got good news from the publisher: Toni Morrison wanted her to adapt Jazz.
Kelley had another turn of good fortune when she found herself auditioning for a part in a Center Stage production as a member of the theatre’s artistic team, associate director/director of dramaturgy Gavin Witt, looked on. Following the audition, Kelley recalled Witt asking her about her writing projects. Taken aback by the shift of focus from her acting to her writing, she quickly mentioned her adaptation of Jazz. Within days, Witt called Kelley with an offer to produce the play. Kelley said she first screamed with joy at the news—then settled into the monumental task of taking on only the second theatrical adaptation ever of a Morrison novel.
In 2005 Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company staged Lydia R. Diamond’s adaptation of Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye. Morrison’s body of work dazzles in part because it provides such a full picture of black people’s inner lives—their thoughts, personalities, motivations, and desires. There are no flat archetypes in Morrison’s fiction. Fully developed, complicated, and historically motivated figures people her work.
What’s more, she brings readers into the richly textured and geographically specific worlds of each narrative. In her adaptation of The Bluest Eye, Diamond confronts the most challenging part of translating Morrison’s work for the stage: showing the layered experiences that shape the figures and their actions in a compressed dramatic form. To do so required Diamond to streamline the narrative, jettisoning many of the subplots, and finding devices to translate the novel’s first-person narration for the stage.
Few writers in U.S. literary history hold Morrison’s iconic status. Her work has transformed generations of readers, giving voice to stories that had never been told before, and offering understanding for figures who had committed unthinkable acts. In a 2015 interview with The Guardian in the U.K., Morrison said evil itself is “completely boring.” Her propensity toward nuance emerges in her Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved, which depicts America’s original evil, slavery, via Sethe, a runaway slave who decides to kill her children rather than have them return to slavery. She once described Sethe’s choice as “absolutely the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it.”
The characters in Jazz face similarly tough choices. The central plot depicts a love triangle gone wrong. The main characters, a married couple, Joe and Violet Trace, must figure out how to put the pieces of their lives back together after Joe kills his young lover, Dorcas, when she decides to dump him after their three-month affair. Violet, overcome with grief, attends Dorcas’s funeral and mutilates her corpse. The rest of the novel details the intergenerational trauma that leads to Violet and Joe serving as what Morrison calls “substitutes”—fill-ins for the lost love both need but are unable to find.
The theme of intergenerational trauma also emerges in Kelley’s work, particularly in her play For Her as a Piano, about a woman’s efforts to maintain her family legacy. Through a journey of discovery, she crosses paths with two other generations of women that help her remember her past. Piano served as an early model for Kelley of how to structure the adaptation of Jazz, though ultimately she found another way to put the story onstage.
In terms of plot, Morrison’s novel does not bury the lede: By the end of the first chapter, the reader learns what caused the unraveling of Joe and Violet’s relationship. Structural innovation propels Morrison’s novel throughout, as Jazz unfolds like a peeled onion, or what Kelley, quoting Morrison, describes as “a prism, constantly turning.” Morrison uses the voices of the characters, situated in different time periods and geographical locations, to help the reader understand Joe and Violet’s actions from within—not to condone or approve so much as to see and feel the circumstances that have shaped them.
Kelley often employs theatrical devices to depict histories and memories that form the characters’ identities, motivations, and choices. In Native Son she used a talking rat to reveal the inner thoughts of the central figure, Bigger Thomas. In Jazz, she said, she’s addressed the novel’s structural challenges by having an ensemble of nine actors, each perched in a window, divulge their stories as they consistently occupy space together onstage. This constant shared presence alerts the audience to the other sides of whatever story is being told. Kelley described this as the “Rashomon effect,” after the Kurosawa film’s multivalent murder mystery. By including multiple perspectives, the adaption retains the historical depth of Morrison’s novel, including Joe and Violet’s common history, which neither main character even knows about.
The Rashomon effect also allows the viewer to understand how Joe and Violet reinvent themselves when they travel from Virginia to New York City as a part of what’s known as the Great Migration, and in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance. Riffing on the idea that the Renaissance created a new kind of black man, Joe quips, “I’ve been a new Negro all my life.” To account for the changing cultural landscape in New York during the 1920s, Kelley includes a scene-setting sound montage that provides a historical overview of Harlem and brings the audience into the Jazz Age.
In Morrison’s novel, multiple narrators serve not only to reveal different sides of the story but also to engage the reader as a participant in the story. The novel leaves us with the notion that the book itself has served as the central storyteller; the story is literally in the reader’s hands.
Morrison’s fiction explicitly collaborates with the reader. Morrison made a similar gesture in her Nobel Prize lecture, which ended, “Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done—together.” Her work is a natural for the theatre, in other words.
Soyica Colbert is an associate professor of African-American studies and theatre and performance studies at Georgetown University. She is currently writing a biography of Lorraine Hansberry.