Jerome Ellis steps out of a giant stage frame that otherwise holds within it the new James and Jerome storytelling show, The Conversationalists.
When he does so, he speaks with pained solemnity about the inequities in incarceration—the overwhelming rates of incarceration by populations of color and the higher rates of violence some populations in prison experience.
It’s a jarring shift in what has been an otherwise light melodrama set to music within a literal and figurative cinematic frame.
The show is structured as an “imaginary” film with a live film score by a quartet of musicians. Ellis and co-creator James Harrison Monaco, along with members of their cast, narrate sluglines, scene descriptions, action, edits, and characters while performing the underscoring and singing songs.
They tell the story of Abed, a Palestinian refugee who has not seen his family exiled in Jordan for 30 years, Esperanza, a former teenage ranchera star (Columbian born, Mexican raised) making her celebrated comeback later in life, and Frankie, Esperanza’s meddlesome teenage son.
The cinematic approach (without celluloid) relies on the audience to put this all together in their heads. It’s an ambitious choice. These music-driven-storytellers are skilled in both areas, but the format of the show ends up creating information overload. Meaning, emotion, and purpose get lost in the heavy mechanics of the production, directed by Annie Tippe.
The constant references to cinematic devices (cut, two-shot, jump cut, aerial view), the dense amount of information delivered, along with subtitles for the characters (some of the story is in Arabic or Spanish) had my mind whirring. I was not able to focus wholly on the narrative or the storytelling. I was always playing catch-up to what was happening as I tried to take in all that was happening in front of me and marry it to what I was supposed to be imagining.
Rather than carrying the story and the emotional beats of the “film,” the music takes a backseat to all this visual construction. The narration and music are often in competition with one another. Some narration has to be nearly shouted into a microphone to be heard above the music.
The characters are sometimes performed by the actors/storytellers/musicians but frequently their actions and lines are narrated. The microphone gets handed off at different times to different performers so often there is not one performer voicing a particular character. We are supposed to use our imagination rather than have the cast in front of us represent any one character.
But Michelle J. Rodriguez, in particular, shines as she sings Esperanza’s songs with gusto. I could not help but associate the role with her as her warm voice filled out Esperanza’s swirling emotions through music.
The compositions have a hint of film composer Michael Nyman (layered piano numbers that build up and out with violin and bass) but the music also embraces the cultural reference points of the characters. The score utilizes traditional Middle Eastern instruments and Latin American sounds.
I’m not above doing work as an audience member, but as the show went on, I desperately wished the cinema device would be dropped.
Storytelling, if done well, generally operates as a film in your head anyway. You make the movie in your imagination, coloring it in with the storyteller’s words and filling in the visuals left unspoken. But you are not making your own movie here. You are “watching” James and Jerome’s imaginary movie, except you also have to construct it while consuming it.
Instead of using the medium of film, they are, in essence, performing a screenplay live, bearing the mechanics of it and all. But we are moving at the speed of theater. One issue with using a screenplay to do this, is that all visual elements come across with equal weight in the telling of them when they would be weighted differently visually in a film. Small gestures get as much “screen time” as large ones here through similar narration. What ends up getting centered is the mechanics of film rather than the storytelling of cinema (or theater for that matter).
I’m not saying this could never work (Christiane Jatahy’s What if they went to Moscow? does succeed in making theater and cinema separately but together) but here these creative elements are all vying for our attention with equal demands. It ends up a difficult puzzle to restructure in your mind. The medium of live performance—people standing in front of you speaking, singing, moving— is in conflict with the medium of described cinema—imaginary camera angles, imaginary edits, imaginary actors, real music—and I was exhausted by this battle.
All the more reason Jerome’s breakout moment is quite sharp in comparison. He addresses the racial make-up of this theater as compared to the population of the incarcerated. He focuses on anti-Blackness and the borders of the “plantation” in modern life. He speculates about how fictional characters manage to get treated with humanity but society treats actual humans as less than human. He raises important questions in thinking about fiction and performance and what imagination can do (and obviously how racism and white supremacy can also seep into people’s minds as well).
His monologue is delivered in silence. After the cacophony of the rest of the show, this moment of quiet allowed us to hear, see, think, and feel.