Against the sounds of clicking typewriter keys, a disembodied voice tells us that Voices From the Soul is dedicated to "the brother on the corner who never had a chance." As the stage lights slowly illuminate several cardboard silhouettes that represent a few of the play's characters, playwright Hugo Jon Sayles goes on to say that the ill-fated brother was actually the world-record holder in the 100-yard dash but set his sights on running from the law instead of coasting to easy fame and fortune. "He had the talent," laments Sayles as he foreshadows the play's central message. "He just lost his way."
At times quietly poignant and riotously funny, Sayles's intriguing collection of stories and poems is being presented at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center by Denver's Shadow Theatre Company. Under the inventive direction of Jeffrey W. Nickelson, five talented actors employ ingenious storytelling techniques to evoke a wide variety of themes, locales and characters. And while a couple of scenes lack clarity and focus, Nickelson imbues the majority of his two-hour production with an appropriate combination of homespun spirituality and off-the-wall whimsy.
Shortly after Sayles concludes the show's brief prologue, we're transported to the Mississippi countryside, where Donald Freeman (Sayles) and a young woman, Tillie Jefferson (Melissa Erin Taylor), strike up a flirtatious conversation over a jar of homemade pickles. In due time, Donald persuades Tillie to drive him to a remote location so that he can take care of some business involving a young white woman. But before Donald can find his way back to the car, a group of white men attack him and, in a highly stylized and riveting episode, lynch him.
Out of the shadow of that ignominy, Lydia Christian (Brenda Hoskins) emerges to tell us her tale about "a walk in the dreamlight near the creek in the summer heat of 1940." To the mournful accompaniment of a muted steel guitar, Lydia, who is white, describes the ghostlike figure of a black man she refers to as her "broken stitch." Infused with the belief that this heaven-sent apparition is her true love, Lydia seeks to form a higher union: "I tried to touch him, but he always felt like charged air," she whispers. Their love is soon consummated, and Lydia is forced to tell her father that she is pregnant with a black man's child. Certain that Lydia is possessed by the Devil, the country preacher beats her and throws her out of his house. As the heartrending tale reaches its powerful conclusion, Hoskins beautifully articulates the lyrical joining of two kindred spirits. It's a wonderfully orchestrated scene that serves as a reminder that theatrical eloquence is less the product of big-bucks special effects and more the result of the poetic, soulful communion that occurs between actor and audience.
Well aware that a true meeting of the minds admits the occasional comic impediment, Sayles and Nickelson have thrown in a thoroughly enjoyable scene about a sandlot football game. Seated at the writer's desk and surrounded by his fellow performers, Sayles spins a yarn that brings to mind Bill Cosby's old anecdotes about neighborhood pals Fat Albert and Old Weird Harold and their dubious athletic exploits. But Sayles's memories of playing football on a dirt field next to Manuel High School in 1947 are even funnier and more bizarre than the relatively sedate antics of the storied Cosby kids. We're quickly introduced to a team of wannabe gridders that includes Zebulon (Tyrus Cooper), a scrawny lad who's reputed to be "the best cold-weather quarterback around." As the teenagers prepare to choose sides for an afternoon pigskin contest, they're interrupted by the arrival of a car adorned with the words "U.S. Government." Out of the sleek sedan steps a diminutive trench-coat-wearing figure with an enormous head who, we later learn, wants nothing more than to join the local football game. Or does he want to infiltrate the close-knit group? Wickedly nicknamed X9 by his newfound friends ("Ain't nobody supposed to have a head like that," mumbles one character), the young man nonetheless proves a formidable adversary--chiefly because his helmet-shaped head appears to be harder than any earthly substance. As X9 races up and down the field, his warhead of a noggin causes an injury to one player's shin, evokes terror from a frantic, image-conscious Zebulon, and plows an enormous divot into the playing field when X9 lands headfirst on the frozen ground. As cleverly staged by Nickelson and company and expertly told by Sayles, who hilariously impersonates X9's otherworldly voice, this welcome episode of comic relief is alone worth the price of admission.
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Act One, however, ends with a macabre scene that contrasts the death of a drug-addicted infant with that of a 110-year-old man. Not surprisingly, the latter clings to each precious minute of life while the former begs for a swift, eternal reprieve from suffering. "I guess you can cherish every moment or hate every moment," says narrator Sayles, "but in the end, there's only the last moment." After intermission, the play resumes with a 25-minute modern-day examination of the myth of Gilgamesh and concludes with a story about the travails of a Pittsburgh schoolteacher named Lashawn Hughes (Skywalker Payne).
To their credit, both Sayles and Payne sustain our interest in their somewhat convoluted tales. In particular, Sayles augments his legend with a martial-arts-inspired choreography that displays the nimble dramatist's ability to give tangible expression to his ephemeral ideas. And even though his delivery of the first half of the story could benefit from an increased attention to vocal variety (as well as some judicious cutting), Sayles's embodiment of Gilgamesh's battle scene is masterfully executed. Payne's mystical saga also takes a while to establish itself. But by the time Miss Hughes tells us about her desire to become a teacher in the city school system, we're comfortably immersed in her monumental struggle--despite the objections of a few nefarious administrative types--to find her niche in society. Which seems to be the overriding desire that's prompted Sayles to compose this drama in the first place. As one character says, "All falsehoods disappear when souls speak face to face." And when the lights fade on the production's final tableau, it's clear that truer words have yet to be spoken.
Voices From the Soul, presented by the Shadow Theatre Company through November 15 at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 837-9355.