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Panning for Gold 

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999

Indigo Blues has the plot of a good folk song, like "Long Black Veil" or "Big Joe and Phantom 309." It's about a saxophonist named Moses who shows up, suddenly, at the plushly furnished country home of two sisters, Muriel and Clara Boudreaux. Moses has been out of the sisters' lives for 30 years, and his presence in their house revives long-smoldering jealousies. (Clara was married to Moses; Muriel once sang in his band.) How the play is like those songs I'll leave for audiences to learn; but it gives nothing away to say that the sisters' dilemma isn't quite what it seems.

Unfortunately, the script stinks. It's clunky and doesn't handle what could be a classically fine story with enough imagination or grace. Old plots, in the wrong hands, become clichés, and Indigo Blues devolves from a haunting folk tale into a vehicle for Idris Ackamoor's saxophone playing. Ackamoor has a name as the leader of an experimental jazz band; he's also the organizing force behind Cultural Odyssey, the four-week theater/poetry/ dance festival capped off by this production. For Ackamoor to place himself in the lead role of a play about a saxophonist is akin to Bob Dylan finding a role in a corny film about a rock star (viz. Hearts of Fire) -- with self-romantic lines about bein' a ramblin' man, etc. -- and the results are just as uneven. But the music's great.

As a whole, actually, Indigo Blues is better than Hearts of Fire, because of Elayne Taylor's performance as Muriel. Muriel is an elegant, proper woman who gave up a blues career with Moses to be a teacher; but now, after the death of a family member, she declares herself sick of small-town funerals, and the urge to get back into some kind of band works on her profoundly. Taylor does an understated, heartfelt job expressing the split in Muriel between wildness and propriety. Every word she utters feels true, even when the script bogs down, and her complaint to Moses about the way she treated him back in the day is one of the show's best moments.

Edyth Jason plays the wild sister, Clara, as a caricature of a superstitious, selfish, salty-mouthed old playgirl. She looks, in a messy blond wig and high heels, like the lead singer in a Tina Turner cover band. Sometimes she squeezes out some funny line about her sex life, and throughout the play she sings a soulful, absent-minded refrain in an effectively husky voice; otherwise Clara is overplayed.

Ackamoor might do better in a play that's not about a musician; on the other hand, in Indigo Blues we get to hear him play the alto sax. His character, Moses, indulges in nostalgia with Muriel by strapping on his sax and playing for her. She can't resist the sound. These scenes are corny, especially when Moses physically pulls Muriel toward him with his playing. But if the whole point of the play is to showcase Ackamoor's music, it pays off, because the scene with Moses and Muriel singing a blues song from their past has a marvelous, joyful force. Taylor can act and sing, and although it lies outside the scope of this play, you wish you could watch Muriel restart her career.

"Cultural Odyssey" is the name not just of Ackamoor's festival but also his band, or project, which has been together for 20 years. The Performance Festival has been around for five. Other parts of this year's festival included a solo performance by Ackamoor's longtime partner Rhodessa Jones (at ODC), and a group of slam poets from Oakland who put on a good show (10 Poets Plus a Mic!) at the Lorraine Hansberry before Indigo opened. 10 Poets' Shawn Taylor did some solid hip-hop shit-talking verse in a knit cap, crucifix, and baggy clothes; Marc Bamuthi Joseph went a long way toward reviving and redefining tap dancing while describing what he went through as a tap-dancing black kid in New York during the crack-addled '80s; and KWEEN (a woman named Keniece) can sing beautifully in a minor key. But festival regular Keith Antar Mason -- a batik-robed wild man from L.A., cultivating a look pioneered by George Clinton -- proved himself to be a self-indulgent pseudo-poet who couldn't live up to his own hype with a chanting, rhythmic, broken monologue that almost, but never quite, made its point about Mumia and the (President) Clinton Crime Bill. Cultural Odyssey has an experimental, hit-and-miss feel -- kind of like panning for gold.


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