Transferring the poetry and detail of Toni Morrison's 'Jazz' to the stage could seem like a daunting process, but at Marin Theatre Co., a West Coast premiere of Nambi E. Kelley's adaptation makes it look easy. Morrison's words dance around the stage like fireflies, and the action under director Awoye Timpo is dream-like and surreal. At moments, it feels like jazz itself.
Violet (C. Kelly Wright) has been done wrong by her man, Joe (Michael Gene Sullivan), and is haunted by the vision of his paramour, Dorcas (Dezi Soléy), whose ghost watches over much of the proceedings from a thin veil. As Violet and Joe move from the country to big city life in New York ("where water come to you, and not you to it"), a certain menace grows and grows. We get foreshadowings of a tragedy caused by jazz music ("Just hearin' it is like violatin' the law"), but the blame ultimately falls on human nature.
The actors here are all good, especially Margo Hall (filmgoers may recognize her as Daveed Diggs' character's mom in Blindspotting), even when the pacing is a little off. The music by Bay Area jazz treasure Marcus Shelby underpins Morrison's story with a bubbling eeriness, even when it's joyful, as in country dances and Harlem nightclub scenes choreographed by Joanna Haigood. For all of the antiquated markers in Jazz, with its overalls, cotton fields, fedoras, field hollers and spirituals, its themes aren't going away anytime soon.
'Jazz' runs through May 19 at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. Details here.