A mighty river is among the most vivid characters in “... and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi,” Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Marcus Gardley’s new play set in the Civil War era.
At times confusing but often thrilling, the ambitious, complex, pieced together quilt of a drama tells the tale of a slave Damascus, who is hung, then resurrected as a woman, Demeter, who — as in the Greek myth — goes in search of her lost daughter.
Her journey takes her to the plantation of Cadence Marie Verse, who lives there with her daughters Blanche, who is white, and Free, who is black. Her husband, Jean, is missing, but he’s got his own troubles, battling a wayward Yankee soldier.
The synopsis, however, does little to capture the lyricism and bold theatricality of the play, directed with creative liveliness by Amy Mueller.
While the show doesn’t offer an easy way to follow the plot (at a bit of a sacrifice of the emotional impact its characters’ struggles have on audiences), it constantly provides eye- and ear-catching images and sounds, beginning with the troupe singing a rousing spiritual and a striking opening poetic monologue by Nicole C. Julien playing the river, Miss Ssippi.
She and her chorus, dressed in appropriately flowing gowns (gorgeous costumes by Tamara Arzumanova and Amanda Togliatti), in a sense are the show’s anchor; the characters often take a tumble in it, and its grandeur serves as a metaphor for the story, which aspires to epic, operatic proportions.
Clever black references abound, including minstrel show themes (the black daughter Free wears “white face” powder) and Michael Jackson songs (the chorus hilariously hums the bass line of “Billie Jean” as the titular character Jesus does, indeed, moonwalk).
The characters names — Yankee Pot Roast is the Union solder, Brer Bit is the Verse family’s “house Negro” — also have significant meanings.
Aldo Billingslea is excellent as the strong Damascus/Demeter, while David Westley Skillman offers a vivid presence as Jesus. Martin S. Grizzell Jr. is the nicely devious Brer Bit.
Members of the Cajun Verse family — Sarah Mitchell as Blanche, Erika A. McCrary as Free, the sisters; David Sinaiko as Jean the husband and Jeanette Harrison as Cadence the wife — all are lively, but their accents were hard to understand on opening night at the Exit on Taylor theater in San Francisco.
Still, “... and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” represents another excellent example of what Cutting Ball continues to present as it celebrates its 10th anniversary season — theater of extraordinary intelligence, innovation and imagination, at reasonable prices, too
... and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi
Presented by Cutting Ball Theater
Where: Exit Theater, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; closes April 11
Tickets: $15 to $30
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.cuttingball.com