Ken Burns did us all an enormous favor with his PBS documentary series "Jazz": he opened doors for many of us to appreciate an underrated art form and learn a little about how to listen to it. So a new jazz play like "Pork Pie," written well before "Jazz" aired, finds a welcoming audience at the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) through June 16.
It's a work in progress and illustrates well the current process young theater writers take to develop their work. Playwright Michael Genet, a screenwriter and actor (in film, "Presumed Innocent" and "Stranger Among Us"; in theater, "A Few Good Men" and "Hamlet") has turned to the theater - a difficult art form demanding a rigor with dialogue not usually required on the screen.
The play received a staged reading at the DCTC's TheatreFest last year and was awarded a grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays. In a full, lovely staging at the DCTC with an excellent cast and fine jazz musicians, its virtues and flaws stand out in high relief. It is a worthy project and well worth the DCTC's nurturing.
Mr. Genet has chosen to write a fable - a complex moral tale about being faithful not only to love but to one's gifts. In all of his work he finds a way, he says, to praise his creator - without preaching.
He sets his story in South Carolina but the time is "The South." Indeed, the story takes place outside of time, with jazz the preferred mode of expression.
A storyteller (played superbly by Roger Robinson) narrates the tale, introducing the characters and the central symbol of the pork pie hat - a kind of crown that jazz musicians vie for, sometimes losing their souls or their talents in the process.
Tempted by the devil's wife, pianist Charlie leaves his home and his wife, Mahaley, and winds up at the Pork Pie Bar - a way station to hell. And the only way out is to "cut" with the Champion and win. This allusion to "cutting" refers to contests in which jazz musicians outdo each other, to the delight of their audiences.
The outstanding ensemble (directed by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, a master in his own right) on stage with the actors (who mime the musicianship) is spectacular.
When Charlie doesn't return after 20 years, his son, Volcy, a gifted saxophonist, sets out to find him, leaving behind his heartsick mother and his own woman to find his father.
When Volcy finally gets to the Pork Pie Bar, he has a lot at stake. But father and son triumph, returning the pork pie hat to its rightful owner, the Storyteller, who turns out to be the legendary saxophonist Lester Young.
"Charlie is searching for that which he has lost - his music, his woman, his very landscape - he's a man without a country," said Genet in a recent phone interview.
"Volcy has lost other aspects of his soul. But he is able to summon the courage to stand back on his feet, face that fear head on, and do battle - win, lose, or draw."
Genet says that one theme of the play is that if an artist doesn't express himself, his life force will just dissolve - he will wither away.
The play is too long, and some of the wonder of the hero's journey suffers. Since it is a fable, a few of the metaphors could use some clarification.
But the play has so much potential, its resonance is so powerful (the ideas stay with you a long time after the play), and its subject is so ripe for audiences right now, it will no doubt evolve beautifully.
The only question is, where will it go next? Perhaps to New York's Lincoln Center? The universality of "Pork Pie" practically guarantees its future.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor