A group of Baltimore artists brought the life of jazz legend Thelonious Sphere Monk to stage during the final two days of the DC Black Theatre Festival. The well-attended production gave the audience a glimpse into the genius and madness Monk’s music embodied. Ultimately however, the production failed to capture the emotion and wonder his music can evoke.
The play chronicled Monk’s biographic highs and lows, glimpsed through a therapy session in 1977 a few short years before his death. As the psychiatrist, LaShawn Sharp’s Hannah was as clinical as David D. Mitchell’s Monk was unpredictable. During the course of their session, Hannah prompts Monk with significant dates and events to which he fills in the details, gyrating and grooving around the stage to a constant soundtrack in his mind. Hannah does little to engage Monk outside clinical questions and responds nearly exclusively in medical jargon and diagnoses.
The two characters sharing the stage appeared to have little connection. Monk exhibited an infectious zeal, a zeal that Hannah seemed more afraid of than attentive to. There was no meaningful relationship established between them and Hannah seemed useful only as a narrator, rather than an integral character. All of this was of no fault of Sharp who did an adequate job with the role she was given.
As Monk, Mitchell showed us a man bound to his music, a man lost without it. He captured the often-debilitating weight of mental illness, treatment and drugs and countered with moments of ecstatic euphoria. Opting for a realistic and honest exploration, he avoided a pitying treatment of Monk’s difficult life.
Max Garner’s first full-length script did not stall in its quick 55 minutes, but it never grew to a story large enough to convince the audience this music changed the face of jazz. Monk’s story and music barely affected Hannah, and her detached demeanor distanced the audience from Monk as well. For Garner’s play to work on a visceral level, Hannah may have needed to change as a result of her encounter with Monk and his music. But as an objective medical practitioner she was relatively untouched, thus diminishing the significance of Monk’s musical contributions.
Rosiland Cauthen’s direction kept the actors moving about the space in interesting ways and with all the right touches of musical punctuation. Near the end of the play when Monk slips into one of his schizophrenic episodes he sees Hannah as a distorted vision. To achieve this moment, a stagehand walked out and dressed Hannah in gold hat, mask and robe. She held a candelabrum in her hand for several minutes as her patient fought his demons, scared by the aberration before him.
The costume felt contrived and the commedia style mask served only to confuse the situation. Mitchell was in such control, emotionally and physically that the extra costuming was unnecessary. I wished Cauthen had trusted the audience in the hands of her actor and allowed Mitchell to lead us into Monk’s confused mind. The moment may have been more believable with less theatrics.
It must be noted that the actors did an incredible job staying focused in the performance space at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. The industrial, concrete room had a large glass wall facing a busy lobby that the performers were forced to confront the entire performance. Their concentration was admirable and they held the room’s attention. Mitchell, particularly, did an excellent job of connecting with individuals throughout the audience.
Despite a passionate performance by Mitchell, Sphere left me feeling passive about Monk’s music. I wanted to tap my feet and nod my head along with the man dancing across the stage, but the playwright left such a distance between the story and its emotional implications that it was difficult to connect to its musical soul.
For those that love Monk’s music and want a glimpse into his life, this show would be a welcome foray into musical history. Certainly some present last night were excited about this production. However, for those unfamiliar with the father of bebop, this was not the passionate introduction it could have been.
One more performance, July 1 at 3pm remains for the Washington, DC premiere of Sphere: The Thelonious Monk Story. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre. 641 D Street, NW, Washington, District of Columbia 20004.
Written by Max Garner
Performed by David D. Mitchell and LaShawn Sharp
Directed by Rosiland Cauthen
Produced by Rapid Lemon Productions as part of the DC Black Theatre Festival
Reviewed by Rebekah Nettekoven Tello