`West Memphis Mojo' on stage

West Memphis Mojo Play by Martin Jones. Directed by Rick Khan. Long-running ``Fences'' and newly arrived ``West Memphis Mojo'' share a common background and time frame: America in the pre-civil rights 1950s. But whereas August Wilson's Cory Maxson is deprived of his opportunity for a college athletic scholarship by an embittered father, the dreams of Martin Jones's young Elroi are smashed by the then prevailing racism of the pop music business.

``West Memphis Mojo'' is set in Teddy's Barbershop & Records in West Memphis, Ark., on a cold November in 1955. As the play opens, Elroi (Tico Wells) and Teddy (Richard Gant) are impatiently awaiting the arrival of Frank (Tucker Smallwood), a musician friend. A song on which Elroi and Teddy have collaborated is supposedly being performed in secret by Frank with the help of an engineer at the studio where Elvis Presley records.

Mr. Jones uses the leisurely waiting interval to fill out his portraits of the exuberantly hopeful Elroi (who notes that his name means ``king'' in French) and his older, more cautious partner. Teddy's happiest memories are related to his World War II service in an England where Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington ``were treated like kings,'' and where he himself encountered no racial barriers.

The ``Mojo'' of the title refers to the amulet Elroi is convinced will ensure his and Teddy's success. It remains for the experience-hardened Frank to disabuse and disillusion his partners when he finally does arrive. Instead of the secret recording session, he has peddled 17 songs (including theirs) to an obscure studio that paid him $100 each, in cash. When Leroi asks about royalties, Frank scornfully informs the young hopeful that black songwriters don't get royalties. The play reaches a melodramatic finale involving Maxine (Kate Redway), a young white matron who has incautiously rescued a wandering Leroi from a gang of white youths.

Under Rick Khan's direction, ``West Memphis Mojo'' receives a riveting performance by a cast that exploits its comic and dramatic possibilities while exploring the social issues set forth by Jones. Besides his sharply etched portrayal of the unillusioned Frank, charismatic Mr. Smallwood demonstrates his prowess as singer, guitarist, and composer. The Crossroads Theatre production presented by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theatre Four through June 19 was smartly designed by Charles McClennahan (set), Shirley Prendergast (lighting), and Judy Dearing (costumes).

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