Suicide in E-flat


Written and directed by Gregory Sullivan
Performed by Willie Ann Gissendanner
Live music composed and played by Lew Mochson
The 42nd Street Workshop
432 W. 42nd St. (695-4173)
Non-union production (closes Dec. 20)
Review by John Chatterton

Actually, Lew Mochson plays not only the music (on an alto sax), but a character, "The Spirit," as the audience watches a deconstruction of the protagonist, an old black woman with an acid tongue and a taste for whisky. The music is integral to the play, not only filling the blackouts between the many scenes but also underpinning some of them. The play is cinematic, dissolving and jump-cutting across Bo's life, with the sax wailing away on her own internal soundtrack, her personal wasteland.

Her history is laced with bitter black humor (pun intended), in the way she talks to her foster kids (nephews and nieces from the extended family), in a wonderfully wry card game (don't play poker with this woman!), in her memories of Harlem in the '20s. She also reveals her desperate psychic roots, in her father's abuse of her at age eight, of being pregnant as a teenager, of becoming a prostitute at an early age. In one scene, she (no doubt drunk) tries to rock her baby to sleep, with an edgy sax in the background, eventually smothering it to keep the child from disturbing the neighbors.

All this would be over the top and wearying were it not sympathetically - even sometimes sexily - portrayed. The actress must be able to turn on the proverbial dime, and Gissendanner did so. The other great pitfall for this kind of play, the numerous blackouts, was filled handily by the music. The narrative isn't always easy to follow, and there's not a lot of bathos or uplift to latch onto. This is theatrical bebop; don't expect the man to play the melody for you.

The set (Mr. Sullivan) was barebones: a table and chair and some props. Lighting (Eric Peterson) effectively isolated areas, sometimes using color, as needed. Costumes were a dress and some accessories, again as needed.

Let's hope a producer ascends the five flights to see this play and helps it find another venue, or at least an extension. It's rough stuff, but it deserves an extended hearing.
Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1998 John Chatterton