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A CurtainUp Review
I came to stop.reset. anticipating an exploration of the troubled book business from the unique viewpoint of an African American book publisher. As a consumer, book author, former book industry agent, I am especially interested in the challenges facing publishing world.
The play does live up to its advance promotional literature that sums it up as being about the owner of Chicago's oldest African American book publishing company who must question each of his employees to determine who is still relevant in a rapidly changing world. Taylor's Mr. Ames, like Isaac Geldhart in Jon Robin Baitz's 1996 The Substance of Fire, is facing personal as well as business problems.
Geldhart's personal issues stemmed from his holocaust past and his company's survival required him to enliven his academic imprint with a mass appeal pot boiler. Ames's memories embody pride in being part of Black History, fierce dedication to the way things used to be, and pain over the death of his son. His survival relies on the need to move from page to screen and content geared to Twitter and Facebook readers. short attention span.
The realistic aspects of the story revolve around the interaction between four department heads of the already diminished publishing company with each other and their boss. As the play opens we see these people enter the office of the company's remaining floor one by one. Neil Patel's handsomely designed office is in a building similar to the Johnson Publishing Company's Chicago's Ebony-Jet glass tower.
Each member of the staff represents a different ethnicity, ages and skills. Chris (Teagle F. Bougere) is the thirty-ish Harvard educated African-American financial officer; Tim (Donald Sage MacKay) is the forty something caucasian production head; Deb (Michi Barall) is an Asian-American who's a little older than Tim and seems to be in charge of marketing; Jan (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) is 59, an especially hard age at which to find oneself unemployed in today's economy.
The oldest cast member is of course 70-year-old Alexander Ames (Carl Lumbly), the proud, book loving company. He still arrives at the office daily, but he's no longer at the top of his form since suffering a stroke and losing the son who would have been more up to dealing with the changes besetting the publishing world.
A scene in which the staff members scheme about how to deal with an anticipated lay-off is followed by Deb, Tim and Chris's one on one interviews with Ames in his book-lined office. Here we watch them stab each other in the back with their pleas to be kept on with suggestions for saving the company from a complete takeover by the corporation of which it has become a subsidiary. By the time the third interview is over and Jan has returned from a foray into the icy streets outside to get coffee we know what makes all these people, including the embattled publisher, tick.
It will hardly come as a surprise that Ames Publishing needs something beyond the proposals made by its staff. After all, people in the real world of traditional print publishing have yet to find a sure fire path to survival in the internet age, no matter what their skin color.
This being a play, Ms. Taylor has indulged the option of bringing in a surreal character to help Mr. Ames transition into another world and present us with a peek into a future that's the stuff of science fiction. That character is the janitor, an illiterate but techno-savvy 19-year-old Latino named J (Ismael Cruz Cordova) who may or not be a cyborg version of Jesus, his predecessor.
J is engaged in non-stop conversation on his Bluetooth to someone who represents a very different kind of invisible man than the one in the Ralph Ellison book Alexander Ames still reveres. His tweet like conversations with an invisible, unidentified other, or others, also involves a hard to fathom cyber game which seems to be about making points for collecting and transmitting memories.
Somehow Ames becomes convinced that J rather than his staff can save his company. It all leads up to a sort of meme explosion that frees Ames from his fixation on the past.
Not being a science-fiction buff, I admit that I had trouble making sense out of some of this, which also seemed to be a case for quite a few other audience members at the performance I attended. That said, however, this is an imaginative, timely piece that holds your attention thanks to excellent all-around performances and Ms. Taylor's vivid writing and visually exciting staging.
Shawn Sagady's projections are as much a star of this production as the actors. Quotes, like some of the ones at the top of this review, envelop the stage and segue into photographic images of the events from Ames's days at Morehouse college, to the March on Washington and the present administration of an African-American President.
Fascinating as all these images and Ms. Taylor's merging of real and surreal are, the effect is likely to leave you feeling as if you've been over-assaulted with ideas. On the other hand, Taylor may just achieve her goal of making you stop and reset your thinking about conventional ways of reading and your life-long storehouse of memories.