Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
5 is set in and just outside Big Jay's Corner Store, located in an inner-city neighborhood of an unnamed location. Big Jay's is an old-time neighborhood convenience shop that has seen much better days. Its interior is worn out, its inventory erratic, and only one of its refrigerator units is working. An unfinished mural focused on community strength that looks down from above the checkout counter would be a point of distinction if it were ever completed. Signs that read "Black Lives Matter" and "All Are Welcome" testify to an effort to be with the times, but they don't make up for the overall shabbiness.
The store is run by Big Jay's son, Jay Jr.–just Jay, now that his father has passed–and Jay's best friend Evan, whose dad Sean O'Malley had been Big Jay's business partner and best friend. Back in the day, Big Jay, who was Black, couldn't get a loan to purchase the store so Sean, who was white, took out the loan in his name. But Big Jay was the heart of the business, the "people person" who gave it personality. With their fathers both gone, Jay and Evan are struggling to stay afloat. Jay still lives over the store as he did growing up. Evan rides a bicycle to work, his long blond hair and a backpack in tow. Aside from a steep downturn in business, the neighborhood is on edge since a realtor began buying up properties, converting them into upscale, trendy shops as the housing stock and citizenry become gentrified. The latest casualty is a Korean grocery store run by Jay's on-and-off (currently off) girlfriend June's family. Their landlord eagerly sold out from under June's family to an agent named Stacy. When Stacy shows up at Big Jay's, the die is cast for a confrontation that threatens to change everything.
In this narrative the playwright is absolutely on target. The situation is wholly believable, steeped both in historic and up-to-the-moment realities. He writes dialogue that is authentic and establishes Jay, Evan and June as real characters, eventually giving Stacy a grounding as well, making her more than just the evil-doer, but someone who has made choices based on a scorched past. Both Evan and Jay are likeable, good-hearted dudes, their affection genuine. We want them both to be happy and we anguish over the wedge that rises between them.
But another narrative stream takes place simultaneously: a creeping awareness of something very off kilter in the universe, foreshadowing an impending catastrophe. These intimations are presented by a fifth character, Walter, an older Black man who spouts biblical quotations and prognostications, a sidewalk preacher and healer. He and Jay's dad were contemporaries and Walter has deep affection for Jay, whom he calls Youngblood. In return, Jay looks after Walter, ushering him off the street and making sure he has something to eat.
But it is more than Walter's outbursts. From the start there are intermittent spells of flashing lights accompanied by radio static and growling sounds. These appear to affect just one person at a time, and they react as if they are being strangled. The effects punctuate something the affected person just said or did. Those unaffected can tell something is wrong with the other, but invariably when they ask, "What's wrong?," the response is along the lines of "It's nothing." Walter references it, but the others dismiss him as a kind but delusional old man. It feels like we in the audience are being given inside dope that makes us smarter than those on stage, wise to what is in store for them, which they are unwilling to acknowledge. Perhaps it is meant as a statement on our collective tendency to be in denial of grave threats–climate change, anyone?
It appears that Johnson has in mind an apocalyptic wave that will make the characters' arguments over, well, everything, insignificant. But we are helpless as episodes that presage disaster flash before us without any impact on the narrative of a failing small business pitted against redevelopment and the inevitability of dehumanizing change. If the apocalyptic through-line were dropped, the rest of 5 would hold up as a beautiful play, albeit less adventurous and requiring a different ending. Or, better yet, an integration of the two narrative lines would raise both to a more cohesive, impactful end.
I have nothing but praise for the five actors. In particular, Johnson, who takes on the role of Jay, and Eric Hagen, who plays Evan, both forge characters with depth, enabling us to feel the weight of the a past they each carry. The chemistry between them, whether as best friends or as sparring partners, is heatedly real. Aaron Todd Douglas creates a winning depiction of Walter, with his intelligence always visible even when he appears to be lost in his own dimension. Isabella Dawis is believable as June, conveying a warm presence in spite of her anger over the abuse suffered by her parents and her ambivalent feelings about her future with Jay. Dana Lee Thompson could easily play Stacy as a one-dimensional villain, as she does starting out, but she then takes full advantage of the opportunity Johnson has written to enable us to understand how, as Stacy tells us, "a good, church-going Black girl–I sang in the choir," could accept being given the part of the devil in her community's eyes.
H. Adam Harris' direction shows an understanding for each of the characters and paces them smoothly through the narrative, picking up momentum after each of the disruptive episodes as if nothing had happened–which is how the play has its characters deal with it. Chelsea M. Warren's set offers an extremely authentic mom and pop shop, and the small refurbishments when it reopens under a new brand are an apt parody of superficial marketing ploys. Dan Dukich's sound designs and Bill Healey's lighting both get a workout creating the foreshadowing episodes, along with the play's final scene. Sarah Bahr's costumes hit the mark for each of the characters.
The title 5 is given reference during a conversation between Jay and Walter over which number: "5" or "7" is more spiritually central. The number shows up, or nearly does, again in the play's closing minutes. Neither of those moments have made me confident that I understand why 5 was chosen as the title. Perhaps understanding that would also create, for me, a sense of the integration between what feels like two separate narrative lines. For now, I remain wholly impressed by the power with which one of those narratives has been written and staged. I look forward to seeing what theatrical adventure–off stage, on stage or both–JuCoby Johnson will next deliver.
5 runs through April 16, 2023, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are available on a "Pay as You Are" basis, $10 to $90, with $45 suggested market value. For tickets and information, please visit www.jungletheater.com or call 612-822-7073. For information on Trademark Theater, please visit www.trademarktheater.org.
Playwright: JuCoby Johnson; Director: H. Adam Harris; Scenic Design: Chelsea M. Warren; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Bill Healey; Sound Designer: Dan Dukich; Properties Design: John Novak; Fight Consultant: Annie Enneking; Assistant Director: Sophina Saggau; Assistant Lighting Designer: Spencer Arevalo; Technical Director: John Lutz; Production Manager: Matthew Earley; Stage Manager: John Novak.
Cast: Isabella Dawis (June), Aaron Todd Douglas (Walter), Eric Hagen (Evan), Jucoby Johnson (Jay), Dana Lee Thompson (Stacy).