Thursday, March 16, 2023

"5" at the Jungle Theater, a co-production with Trademark Theater

"Trademark Theater tells bold stories by creating, developing and producing new works that challenge, entertain and inspire audiences." Check, check, and check. Trademark's latest new work is a co-production with Jungle Theater, a play called 5 written by #TCTheater artist JuCoby Johnson. It's creative and inventive, grounded yet fantastical, a story of friendship that deals with relevant issues like gentrification. Combining Trademark's talent for fostering new work with the Jungle's excellent production and design values results in a wildly entertaining and engaging night at the theater. 5 plays Tuesdays through Sundays at the Jungle Theater in Uptown until April 16, but don't wait too long - the small theater has a tendency to sell out especially for hot shows like this one is sure to become.

Lifelong best friends Jay and Evan have inherited a neighborhood convenience store called "Big Jay's Corner Store," left to them by their recently deceased fathers, who were also best friends. Because it was easier for Evan's father, a White man, to get a loan back in the day (and sadly probably still today) than it was for Jay's father, a Black man, the title and paperwork are now in Evan's name. This becomes a source of tension when a real estate company, who has slowly been buying up the old neighborhood and turning it into condos, parking ramps, and juice bars, offers to buy their store. Jay is adamant about not selling, but Evan believes it's the only way the struggling store can survive. The lucrative deal may or may not help the store to survive, but will the friendship survive?

Playwright JuCoby Johnson, who also portrays Jay, has written a play with dialogue that sounds like how people really talk. The characters and relationships are crisply drawn, and the story is believable. This story of a friendship challenged would be a great play on its own, but it's not as simple as that. There's also an element of magical realism; something keeps happing with the electrical system - the old boom box cassette player seems to have a mind of its own, and the lights flicker at opportune moments. This sometimes causes some characters to clutch their chests and struggle to breath. We hear snippets of radio broadcasts about natural disasters. There's a foreboding sense that something is not quite right here, almost as if an infected is about to burst out of the back room at any moment. There's an underlying tension that goes beyond just that of the relationship drama, and somehow heightens it.

"brothers" Evan (Eric Hagen) and Jay (JuCoby Johnson)
(photo by Lauren B. Photography)
Each of the 5 characters (which may be the reason for the title, or possibly a biblical reference) have a point of view and motivation that's believable. Jay and Evan are both doing what they think is best to continue their fathers' legacy, despite Jay's recent misstep that's continually hinted at. Jay's childhood sweetheart and current ex June saw her family's business destroyed by the same real estate company so she naturally doesn't trust them, while local church pastor Walter, who's always talking about the end times, plays the peacemaker. Even the real estate agent Stacy is more than just the bad guy in the story; she grew up in the neighborhood and has some sort of unresolved trauma around it, her part in the destruction perhaps a sort of revenge against the place that betrayed her.

The Jungle's shoebox diorama of a stage is perfect for this play; the corner store is realistically represented with great attention to detail, as if we could walk through the door and buy a pack of gum or some Cheetos. This is one time I won't complain about the intermission in a two-hour play because it allows for the necessary transformation to the store in the second act. The lighting and sound design are pivotal to the story - lights flicker right on cue and in complicated succession, while the radio clips, music, and sound design adding color and tension. Sarah Bahr's costume design creates a clear and instant impression of these characters, from the neighborhood friends' casual streetwear, to the pastor's classic suits, to Stacy's smart and fashionable businesswoman attire. This was the second play I saw this week with fighting onstage, both choregraphed by Annie Enneking in a way that feels real, raw, and almost dangerous (see also Diesel Heart at History Theatre). Overseeing all of these elements and bringing it all together in a cohesive, fluid, engaging way is director H. Adam Harris. (Scenic Design by Chelsea M. Warren, lighting design by Bill Healey, sound design by Dan Dukich.)

It's a rare thing when a playwright acts in their own play, and it's always a treat. Maybe it's the fact that he wrote every word, or just a credit to his skills as an actor, that JuCoby's portrayal of Jay is so believable, complex, and fully formed. Eric Hagen is a wonderful duet partner in this friendship love story, with a physicality to his performance that's almost hard to believe. Aaron Todd Douglas as the Walter is warm and friendly, and a little more than he seems; Isabella Dawis is sweet and spunky as June, who's no pushover; and Dana Lee Thompson brings humanity and depth to what could be the simple villain role of the evil real estate developer.

There have been some wonderful co-productions between #TCTheater companies lately, and it's a trend I hope to see continues. In a time when it feels like we get another announcement of a theater's hardship every other week, it seems like a smart idea to combine resources, audiences, and sensibilities to create something stronger and farther reaching. Much like Jay and Even's decision about their store in a changing world, the theater landscape is changing, and co-productions may help them all survive. And hopefully avoid the strange apocalyptic happenings.

The grounded yet wild ride that is 5 continues through April 16 (click here for details and tickets).