Given that the entire country is having a necessarily uncomfortable conversation about the legacy of slavery and racism—and given that the internet has given us new eyes to witness scenes that used to happen in places we'd never heard of—now is an excellent time to see ...and Jesus Moonwalks on the Mississippi at the basement theater of the Seattle Center Armory.
A Civil War fantasia by Marcus Gardley, Jesus begins with a florid monologue by Miss Ssippi, an incarnation of the big river which, played by the stately Kathya Alexander, feels uncommonly grounded for a body of water. Though that's not a bad thing. Miss Ssippi is our prologue and guide through this myth, set in Louisiana but based on the Demeter and Persephone story, that is as patchwork as a quilt—though that's not a bad thing, either. Gardley seems eager to show us that history is full of contradiction, dissonance, and competing narratives, and Jesus isn't interested in tidy packaging.
The story, basically, concerns a runaway slave who is lynched by Confederate soldiers, turns into a woman, and then goes searching for his/her daughter and granddaughter at the plantation of a Cajun Confederate who deserts the army and takes up with a 15 year-old Union bugle boy. They all converge on the plantation just in time to see it fall like the House of Usher—or Atreus or Lear.
Gardley is playing with a grandiosity that is sometimes unwieldy—New Yorker critic Hilton Als, while praising another one of Gardley's plays, wrote that "his baroque language sometimes feels like a boulder plunked down in the middle of the stage"—but his linguistic and storytelling ambition, and how far he gets with it, can be mesmerizing. Directed by Tyrone Brown of Brownbox Theatre, the production feels like a roughhewn epic. Not all of its elements are of equal quality, but what works works very, very well. Burton Yuen's set design combines the play's elemental leitmotifs—liquids (rivers, booze), weaving (quilts, military uniforms, nooses), lumber (a sentient tree, a plantation house), and so on—in a surprisingly unforced way. Richard Schaefer's moody, indigo lighting design is key to the production's mythic, swampy feel. And some of the performances are worth the price of admission.
There's one trinity in particular that's worth staying for: Shermona Mitchell lights up the stage as the moonwalking Jesus, with big cheeks, white Converse, and the bubbly warmth of a Jesus who's all salvation and not terribly interested in anyone's sins. Jesus is the invisible friend of Free (Lindsay Zae Summers), a young African Cajun girl whose surrogate mother makes her wear whiteface and says she's the twin sister of little Blanche (Sunam Ellis). The two girls have the same father—the wily Confederate deserter Jean Verse (Nick Rempel)—and were born on the same day, but Free's mother seems to have vanished.
These "twins" (one black and prim in a fancy tea dress, the other a white tomboy who wants to be a Confederate soldier) play and squabble like any pair of siblings through the disaster that's unfolding around them. There's the war, the private treacheries of adults, runaway slaves and vigilantes. As Casca says to Cicero after the supernatural firestorm in Julius Caesar, when dead men walked the streets and owls shrieked at noon: "Either there is a civil strife in heaven, or else the world, too saucy with the gods, incenses them to send destruction."
Gardley, like Shakespeare, isn't content with interpersonal chaos—he throws the whole world out of joint. Or, put another way, he sees the chaos in the world and wants to distill it for the stage, where things are usually only pretending to get out of hand.
Miss Ssippi says as much at the top of Jesus: "Though thick as God's thigh I'm merely a wink of water blue/Mostly mud, mostly immovable/Mostly moved to wrap my big river ways round your waist/And tease you a taste of a tale long untold old./A tale without a tail, without a head/The gut of somethin/A stream/A thread of history needin to be needled-in/Knotted into your know-how."
The result is unruly at times, and not always finessed in a conventional way, but that's not really the point—this production has power.