"Slam!," Thomas W. Jones II's latest theatrical construction, which opened Sunday at Studio Theatre, is part poetry, part song, part lament and part debate, with jokes and riffs thrown in and a redemptive vision underneath. Though its premise sounds groaningly didactic (seven lost souls come to a mystical cafe called the Last Word hoping to find themselves again through their own poetry), the show is in fact light and fast on its feet, another of Jones's visionary spellbinders.
Dex (J. Samuel Davis) is a middle-class black man who has fled his white wife, Claire (Shannon Parks), and two sons, seeking a new reality in Sengalese (Yvette G. Spears), a black-vinyl-clad prostitute-turned-poet with a mightily seductive behind. ("When I move my hips, do you see God?" she asks, and when all the men immediately respond "Yes," you believe them.)
Amani (Monroe Thomas) mourns the death of her father at the hands of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's henchmen. Summer (Rahmana M. Finney), the child of a white father and a black mother, is trying to avoid the whole race thing and live as a "nonspecific."
Packing the attitude are D.C. (Jahi A. Kearse), who has all the righteous political cant down pat, and Jordan (Christopher Michael Bauer), a fast-moving white kid who declares, "I'm not just some wannabe tryin' to sneak up on 'urban flava.' " And presiding over all of them is the cafe's proprietor, Autumn (Chandra Currelley), an earth-mother sort who wants to help them heal themselves from the wounds of America's racial craziness.
"I am a poet," each of the characters announces pretentiously, and if "Slam!" were nothing but its script, it would be obvious and over-earnest. But the words are only a blueprint for the total show, which shifts like a kaleidoscope spun free of the laws of physics. Jones's fluidly kinetic directing style is as mesmerizing as ever, and once again he has the amazing choreographer Patdro Harris to partner him move for move.
The eight characters leap and strut, slink and wander, half dancers, half dreamers. As conceived by set designer James Kronzer, the Last Word is clearly a magical place. Though it's furnished like an ordinary bar, a bottle of whiskey on a lower shelf glows with its own soft, inner light. The spirits are present.
The evening's most exhilarating moments are when the characters bang opinions, prejudices, fears and challenges at one another like pool masters shooting ideas. The eight ball is race, and everyone is behind it. "It's not always about the skin you're in," Autumn tells Jordan, who snorts back, "Opinions give me amnesia. It's safer that way."
With his braids pulled up into a parody of a samurai topknot, Kearse is reminiscent of another deeply masculine clown, the late Japanese screen star Toshiro Mifune. He has the same self-mocking swagger and willingness to go all out, the same underlying anger and hint of pain. D.C. is the group's problem kid, the least tractable, the most vulnerable, the funniest. At one point, trying to seduce Summer, he proposes throatily, "And what if I made you squiggle?" Bad move, unless, of course, what he really wanted was for her and the rest of the cast to laugh at him till they were weak.
Jones has gathered a superb ensemble. Everyone can sing, and if some dance better than others, Harris still manages to make them all look good. Currelley's full-throated solos are particularly impressive, and Bauer is frenziedly good as the unembarrassable Jordan.
The script throws something of a wet blanket over Parks, who has to wander around the stage dressed in white, a walking guilt trip for her errant husband. (Jones isn't cynical enough to suggest that the guy fled because he got sick of how damned understanding and self-sacrificing she was.)
Reggie Ray has done his usual knockout costumes (D.C. wears a catcher's protective shield like a modern-day codpiece). Michael Giannitti's lighting and Tony Angelini's sound vibrantly support Jones's shifting imagery.
The lively, percussive score by Jones and musical director William Knowles (who also plays keyboards) keeps everything on the boil, even when the lyrics get tepid. The long, self-consciously poetic numbers--more aria than song--show Jones at his weakest, his least witty and most "writerly."
He is a poet, but not when he's thinking about it. The poetry of "Slam!" isn't its well-meant message but its exuberant invention, its passionate witnessing--its creator's joyous shout.
Slam!, written and directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Music by William Knowles and Thomas W. Jones II. Musical direction, William Knowles; props, Susan Senita Bradshaw. Musicians: drums, Mark G. Prince; bass, Yusef Chisholm; saxophone, Ron Oshima; guitar, Michael Joseph Harris. At Studio Theatre through July 11. Call 202-332-3300.
CAPTION: D.C. (Jahi A. Kearse) tries a seductive ploy on Summer (Rahmana M. Finney) in "Slam!"
CAPTION: Christopher Michael Bauer and Chandra Currelley in Thomas W. Jones II's "Slam!," at the Studio Theatre through July 11.