Presented by ArtsEmerson.
By Daniel Beaty
Directed by David Dower
Review by Travis Manni
(Boston, MA) Black box theater is traditionally a great medium for experimental productions, so when I, along with other audience members of Mr. Joy, was told that the play would speak to us and that we were expected to talk back, I was quite excited—I’m a sucker for audience par-tish. And while my expectations for live audience feedback were never met (don’t anticipate improvised scenes, but rather, a couple moments of audience contribution) what I did manage to enjoy about Mr. Joy was how it addressed current issues in a loud way.
To start, the play opens with a multimedia montage that appropriately sets the emotionally chaotic scene in Harlem, New York. The mysterious events surrounding a now-hospitalized local Chinese cobbler propel the plot of Mr. Joy forward as we meet an ensemble of different characters in playwright Daniel Beaty’s one-person show. Clarissa, an 11-year-old apprentice of the man, has just returned home from the hospital. She becomes worried when Mr. Joy won’t come to his door to see her new sketches.
I was told that Mr. Joy would make me want to ask questions, but by the end that simply was not the case. At one point, the young man that attacked and hospitalized Mr. Joy recites a slam poem that speaks perfectly to the core of racial issues in America. This is where the play’s message is loud, both through the power of spoken word and the pounding audio beats that reverberate throughout the entire theater.
In his spoken word piece, the man correlates broken families with anger expressed through physical rage among the Harlem youth, but what we’re actually left with in the play’s conclusion is a feel-good, upbeat tone that does not do this powerful moment justice. Any questions that were raised were now set down, similar to a pair of shoes placed on the steps of Mr. Joy’s shop to offer condolences for the man.
One aspect of the production that does work is the casting of Tangela Large as the sole performer in the show. Her transitions between characters are sharp but simple, usually just the zipping up or down of her hoodie and alterations in speech, and fluid enough so the audience is never lost as they make their way through the Harlem cityscape. To create so completely all the characters she portrays with such respect and wholeness is a true testament to her craft.
I’ll applause Beaty for his work and characters, which are both so fleshed out and independent that being able to have a single actor portray all of them is a feat in itself. And I do recommend seeing this show because there is a message in it that many people need to hear. Just do your best not to allow the feel-good conclusion to hinder the real-world issues that are highlighted in the emotional and climactic moments of the play. Unfortunately, it was a fight that I personally lost.
Mr. Joy will play at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at Emerson College’s Paramount Center through October 18th. Click here for tickets.