By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
Thomas W. Jones II is a theatrical wizard who for 16 of the 30 plus years I’ve been coming to MetroStage productions has been the writer, director, and/or choreographer for literally countless numbers of great shows like the fabulous “Three Sistahs,“ ”Pearl Bailey…by Request,” and “Two Queens, One Castle.” He recently directed MetroStage’s “The Gin Game” which I loved and reviewed just a few months ago. He is, simply put, amazing. Now he is acting in his own show, “Wizard of Hip (Or When in Doubt Slam Dunk).” Who knew he could also act?
To say that “The Wizard of Hip” is intense is to put it mildly. Tom Jones employs elegant poetry, street-wise cracks, and hilarious storytelling that evoke spontaneous talkback from the audience. His stories of Afro Jo (or everyman) illustrate what it means to be an African American man growing up in a confusing world. Those illustrations can be sometimes raw and a little uncomfortable for the uninitiated white folks (especially females) in the audience to understand or appreciate, but I think we got most of his meaning through his constantly-in-motion body and his powerful, rough-edged and emotion-charged voice.
Did I mention that this show employs lots of music? Well, it does and snippets of the music of “the day,” as well as original music by William Knowles, are played and sung by two glorious young women, the Lady Doo Wops, played by Jasmine Eileen Coles and Kanysha Williams. Not only do they soften Jones’ rapid fire rhetoric, but they liven up the edges of the stage and seriously make you want to get up and DANCE! Plus their voices are beautiful, clear, and their stage presence and dancing are delightful to see and hear! They are perfectly matched.
Jasmine graduated cum laude from Virginia Commonwealth University with a BA in Theatre Performance, but is now living and working in New York City. Kanysha is a DC native, graduating from Duke Ellington School of the Arts, studying voice at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and completing her musical education at GMU. I got to speak with both young women and they are as vibrant off-stage as on. Tom Jones told me that they were as thoroughly professional during rehearsals as we see on-stage. I predict that both will have fulfilling and rich careers!
Bringing the music to life with his keyboard is music director and composer William Knowles, who is also a mainstay at MetroStage, having music directed the recent “Anne & Emmett” (also directed by Thomas W. Jones II) and Greg Holloway on Drums. Greg, whom I’ve seen and heard many times over the years is just as enthusiastic in this performance as any I’ve seen him do. He even loses it a couple of times over a couple of the riffs and jokes Jones tells. We love seeing him breaking up, just as we are, too.
The arc of the show begins in the first act somewhat unfamiliarly to this white female ear, as he describes the task of growing up black and male, while searching for hipness from early childhood through age thirteen. We hear about his family and begin to understand his background with his beloved mother, father and other family members, and as he ages, we (I) begin to better understand what it means to grow up black. All the while his riffs and stories are funny, though sometimes I missed the point amid the torrent of words delivered hilariously. He jokes about the fact that many of us won’t “get” some of his stuff, but that’s OK, because what we do get is that he is striving for a kind of black male hipness that even he doesn’t know what he’s looking for. Afro Jo idolizes cool basketball players, one of his measures of success, and another with his peer group is, of course, his sexual prowess and crowing about it (whether or not it is imagined).
The second act brings him full circle through the death of his mother, the civil rights struggle, and the agonizing wave of assassinations in the ‘60’s (“It’s hard to be happy with all this going on,” he laments), and shows his softer, more human side. The realization of our common humanity, despite cultural differences, can suddenly sneak up on us despite any outward focus on becoming or staying “hip!” The music all the while rounds out each scene with perfectly timed and paced lyrics and dance moves by Jones and the sassy Lady Doo Wops.
The projection design of Robbie Hayes worked beautifully — especially when Afro Jo appears to spray paint a graffiti-like S-E-X on the back wall of the theatre and when he mimics the dancing of a hip Sidney Poitier. And as we can plainly see in black and white video projection, he absolutely nails Poitier’s dancing style in the movies “To Sir, With Love” and “Lilies of the Field.” He pointed out that since we didn’t immediately recognize his expert dancing by loudly clapping, we had to look at the video to prove it.
In fact his elegant dancing, singing, marvelous acting, and good humored storytelling kept this reviewer engaged and rooting for Afro Jo to achieve his idea of “hipness” all evening. What I guess he didn’t realize, Dorothy, is he already had it. Boom.
For this show, the designers are: Carl Gudenius, set; Robbie Hayes, projections; Michael Sharp, costumes; Alex Keen, lights; and Gordon Nimmo-Smith, sound. David Elias is the Production Stage Manager.
Performance and Ticket Information:
Performances for “Wizard of Hip” will be Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 3 and 8, Sundays at 3 and 7, Aug 17-Sept 17. Tickets are $55-60 with student and active military discounts available. For ticket reservations call the theatre at 703-548-9044 or go online to www.metrostage.org. For information and group sales call 703-548-9044. MetroStage is located at 1201 North Royal St. in North Old Town Alexandria.