The shell of a 1964 Ford Galaxy convertible is the centerpiece of a Queens home in the arresting Aishah Rahman play "The Mojo and the Sayso."
The shell of a 1964 Ford Galaxy convertible is the centerpiece of a Queens home in the arresting Aishah Rahman play “The Mojo and the Sayso.”
That relic of a car, which has taken over a family’s carpeted living room, also dominates Jennifer Zeyl’s eye-popping set for the ACT Theatre mounting of this remarkable play — which is by turns heartbreaking, funny, mystical, overwrought, bleak and affectionate.
Though sparked by the true story of Clifford Glover, a boy of 10 fatally shot in 1973 by New York police in a horrific case of mistaken identity, “The Mojo and the Sayso” is really more concerned with the living than the dead.
The play, which Valerie Curtis-Newton has staged as part of ACT’s Hansberry Project, considers family survivors of a tragedy similar to Glover’s, as they struggle with an unfathomable loss.
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Three years after the little boy’s violent death, his father, Acts (played with tenderness and authority by the excellent Lindsay Smiling), tries to rebuild his family by restoring that old Ford to its former glory.
Acts’ wife, Awilda (Tracy Michelle Hughes), finds her refuge in religion, and takes comfort from a demagogic pastor (Timothy McCuen Piggee, who oozes a perfume of righteousness and smarmy).
And what of Blood (Jose A. Rufino), Awilda’s older son and Acts’ stepson? He was a good kid, who’s become a punky hothead, “with a grenade for a soul.”
Spasms of raw rage, guilt and hurt, and the appearances of a gun and a scary-looking knife keep things tense around this modest home. And they don’t keep these folks from ultimately reconciling and moving on together.
While there are parallels here to the Hansberry classic “A Raisin in the Sun,” Rahman’s script turns what could have easily been a more literal domestic drama into an imagistic, semilinear blast, with emanations of Beckettian absurdism, Adrienne Kennedy surrealism and Sam Shepard monologistic riffing.
The dialogue is textured with pungent insights (“I was afraid of being weak and afraid”), and what the author terms a “jazz aesthetic.” And there’s a profusion of sensual detail — as when Awilda remembers her slain son’s “boy smell,” and Acts rhapsodizes about the grail of auto mechanics.
There are some blatant symbols here (that car, for one), and some overwrought acting (primarily by Awilda, who has great moments and some bombastic patches).
But there are many small, telling jolts and wonders in this tale, and in Tom Sturge’s excellent lighting scheme. At one point the car’s engine glows like red hot embers; at another a storm of glittering confetti descends.
This is not the easiest play to penetrate at first. And as earlier reviews of the 1987 work have pointed out, having an intermission in this fairly short play breaks up its momentum. Another point: For Curtis-Newton’s otherwise impeccable production, one wishes for a richer sound design.
But “The Mojo and the Sayso” is rare in how it sucks you into the consciousness of a loving black, working-class family, trying to bond back together after a shattering trauma. And it ponders, by extension, a culture in which far too many young people are lost to violence.
In a stunning speech, Awilda holds a reparations check for her son’s death in her hand and ponders, “How do they add up what a 10-year-old boy’s life is worth to his parents?”
Misha Berson: email@example.com