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Dessa Rose

Eyewitness Blues

With its mixture of music and spoken word, this experimental piece about a trumpet player and his muse never hits the right note.

By New York City
Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp in Eyewitness Blues
 (Photo © Joan Marcus)
Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp in Eyewitness Blues
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"Have you ever held a horn player's breath in your hand?" asks a muse (Mildred Ruiz) in Eyewitness Blues, written and performed by Ruiz and Steven Sapp. The show mixes music and spoken word to tell the story of a trumpet player named Junior McCullough (Sapp). As the musician takes a breath before blowing his horn, his muse comes to visit.

While the writers/performers probably intended their show to be a meditation on the creative life and artistic spirit, this experimental work never hits the right note. The play does not attempt to tell a linear narrative; instead we get fragments of monologues, elliptical poems, and snatches of music. The muse tells the audience that she's looking for pieces of the angel Gabriel, finding fragments within a host of musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. She's located another piece within Junior; she yearns to see the map to finding the angel within Junior's face, but the musician has his own problems and is reluctant to go on the "hero's journey" that the muse has planned for him.

Junior goes to Hell -- or, at least it seems like he does. As the muse leads him on his journey, she quotes from Dante: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." One of the problems with the play is that there's so much quotation and name-dropping that it becomes dizzying. Black artists and intellectuals from Savion Glover and Snoop Dogg to bell hooks and Cornel West are invoked. There are references to literary works such as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Homer's The Odyssey. However, there's no depth to these allusions. Even the more pointed commentary about race and ethnicity seems like lip service rather than a true exploration of the ways that Junior has been affected by stereotypes and racism.

Despite a striking set design by Narelle Sissons, who has transformed the New York Theatre Workshop space into a thrust configuration, director Talvin Wilks has not managed to stage the show in an interesting manner. The two actors wander about on the runway-like central platform, often with no apparent motivation other than to keep turning around so that different sections of the audience, positioned on three sides of the set, can see them. Ruiz is prone to making abstract hand gestures that are at times used for emphasis but mostly seem extraneous. Junior's journey has emotional highs and lows, but Sapp only indicates these feelings rather than inhabiting them. Overall, the duo's interaction lacks dramatic tension, although there are occasional moments in which they connect.

Heather Carson's atmospheric lighting design (which relies on heavily saturated reds and blues) and Emilio Sosa's costumes (including a couple of stunning outfits for Ruiz) aren't enough to hold our attention. Nor are the original compositions by Antoine Drye, Carlos Pimentel, and Paul Jonathan Thompson, performed live by Drye and Thompson. The score is a mixture of jazz and blues, incorporating sampled melodies from tunes such as "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." It's pleasant enough but it doesn't grab hold of the listener.

The primary flaw of the production, however, lies in the script. Co-authors Ruiz and Sapp are founding members of the troupe Universes, which performed the dazzling spoken word and hip-hop-flavored extravaganza Slanguage at New York Theatre Workshop in 2001. Full of passion, energy, and poetry, that piece showcased their talents in an explosive and politically charged manner. In contrast, Eyewitness Blues feels lackluster and pretentious. Despite the presence of a muse as a central character within the tale, the piece seems largely uninspired.


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