With its haunting strains of jazz music and mournful depictions of urban despair and drug addiction, “Sonny’s Blues” might have been written last week.
James Baldwin’s short story, which recounts a black man’s attempts to keep his younger brother on the straight and narrow, was published in 1957. But in the vibrant new theatrical adaptation by The City’s own Word for Word, produced in association with the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, it feels startlingly up to the minute: “Trouble,” as its narrator observes, “is the one thing that never does get stopped.”
Baldwin’s story is an American classic, and Friday’s opening at Lorraine Hansberry’s Sutter Street venue showed why. Directed by Margo Hall, performed by a resourceful cast of six and presented in Word for Word’s customarily brilliant style — exactly as written, with every word intact — “Sonny’s Blues” is both a moving look at the struggles faced by blacks in the years between World War II and Vietnam and a timeless meditation on the ways art can transcend those struggles. Coming at the start of Black History Month, it’s also a stunning tribute to Baldwin, the author of groundbreaking works such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
The title character of “Sonny’s Blues” is a young jazz musician in 1950s Harlem. But the central character — simply called the Narrator — is Sonny’s older brother, a high school algebra teacher and Army veteran who returns from military service to find the world, and his beloved brother, changing in ways he can’t understand.
The story, which begins with the news that Sonny has been arrested on a heroin charge, is told in flashbacks, with scenes depicting the blows life has dealt the two men: a grandfather’s murder at the hands of a white mob, a daughter lost to polio, the death of both their parents. Even as he tries to comply with his mother’s last wish — “Hold onto your brother and don’t let him fall,” she tells him — the narrator sees Sonny turning to drugs and slipping away. Yet the poetic final scene, which shows Sonny on his own turf, playing the piano in a Harlem nightclub, suggests an almost mystical redemption.
The cast is strong throughout. Peter Macon gives eloquent voice to the narrator’s role, and Da’Mon Vann creates the enigmatic Sonny in urgent, edgy strokes.
Allison L. Payne, Margarete Robinson, Robert Hampton and Mujahid Abdul-Rashid play various family members, musicians, students and street people. Hall’s staging is fluent, and an original score by Bay Area composer Marcus Shelby adds a rich sense of atmosphere; the transformative power of music is at the core of “Sonny’s Blues,” and by the end of the90-minute production, Shelby’s lyrical, elegiac writing feels just as expressive and as essential as Baldwin’s own.
IF YOU GO
Presented by: Word for Word
Where: Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 10
Tickets: $22 to $36