Thursday, April 25, 2024

"A Jumping-Off Point" at the Jungle Theater

"A smart, sharp comedy that asks the important questions about privilege and who is allowed to fail." This tagline on the cover of the program pretty well describes the new play A Jumping-Off Point, receiving its regional premiere at the Jungle Theater. It's the kind of play that I love, one in which complex characters discuss relevant issues in a personal and relatable way, with no easy answers, no winners or losers. And the issues discussed are ones on the forefront of current conversation - who has the right to tell whose story? It's no longer acceptable for a writer to tell the story of a community they're not a part of, particularly a marginalized community. People in that community have the right to tell their own story, something we've only just begun to realize and put into practice. But does that make it OK to steal someone else's idea and "make it better?" Those are the thorny issues that this excellent three-person cast, savvy director, and brilliant design team dig into in just 90 minutes. Buckle your seat belts, not just to make it through Uptown construction to see this play at the Jungle through May 19, but also to navigate the twists and turns of this story.

Just five years out of grad school, Leslie is living every playwright's dream - her play was a success on Broadway, and now she's developing it for an HBO series (Max, actually). Life is going great, until her grad school classmate Andrew sends her an email. Her BFF Mirian can see she's thrown by it, but Leslie won't admit to why. When Andrew shows up on her doorstop, we learn that she stole his grad school thesis to write her play. Or in her words, she used it as "a jumping-off point" to develop a story that was all her own. As a Black woman, she believed she was the more appropriate person to write about the Black community in the Mississippi delta than a White man who heard a story about it on MPR. Maybe that's true, but Andrew, who is struggling in his life, wants to be acknowledged and even rewarded for his contribution. There begins an awkward, tenuous, forced relationship between these two, as Leslie tries to continue to tell her story within the restrictions of the studio and TV executives, and Andrew tries to write what he knows.

Leslie (Vinecia Coleman) and Andrew (Gabriel Murphy)
in the writers' room (photo by Lauren B. Photography)
The play is very smartly written by playwright Inda Craig-Galván (who's also written for TV), with the play beginning and ending with panel discussions of the playwrights talking right to the audience. In between we see the characters interacting in a living room, a writers' room, or a cafe. Multi-talented #TCTheater artist Shá Cage directs the piece with precision, hitting all the right notes. And this trio of actors simply couldn't be better. Vinecia Coleman has been seen at the Jungle, Penumbra, and other stages over the last five years or so, and is always so interesting to watch. Here she's a strong and sympathetic as the complex character of Leslie, someone you root for, even if you wish she'd make some different choices. Making a welcome return to #TCTheater after some half dozen years away, now-London-based Gabriel Murphy is a fantastic sparring partner in Andrew, alternately relatable and infurating, the two going toe-to-toe in the best way. Last but not least, Ashawnti Sakina Ford brings a bit of humor and sunshine in her role of Leslie's loyal BFF, who still tells the hard truths.

is it weird that I kind of want to live in this room?
(photo by Lauren B. Photography)
I am obsessed with the design of this play, and it's hard to separate out the elements because everything comes together so smoothly, along with the direction, to create such a specific look. First - the color palette of grey/black/white and yellow is so satisfying (with a few touches of pink in one scene if you look closely). I'm not sure if or how it relates to the play, maybe the idea of an orderly black and white world that isn't quite what we think, but it's delicious to take in. The play opens on a bare stage set, with Leslie leading a discussion in a theater or auditorium. The next scene takes place in the living room of the apartment she shares with Miriam, and as the back wall opens and this little yellow box rolls out, it was a thrill to take in every yellow detail. The walls are yellow, the furniture is yellow, the plates are yellow, the appliances are yellow, even the laptop and yoga mats are yellow! Again, maybe this speaks to Leslie's neatly ordered world and how she thinks she has everything figured out, or maybe it's just fun to look at. Characters are dressed in chic neutrals that blend into this world, the lighting effects vary from fluorescent conference room lights to early morning sunlight to the glow of a laptop screen at night, and the sound design includes cool music during scene transitions. At times characters freeze just for a moment before moving on to the next scene, so we can take in the stunning tableaux. (Scenic design by Daniel Allen, costume design by China Bleu Simmons, lighting design by Dante Benjegerdes, and sound design by C. Andrew Mayer.)

If you like smartly written, crisply designed, well acted, relevant and thought-provoking 90-minute-no-intermision plays, A Jumping-Off Point is the one for you! See it Wednesdays through Sundays at the Jungle Theater in Uptown through May 19 (all tickets pay-as-you-are).