Fantasy and reality are so thoroughly married in Aishah Rahman's The Mojo and the Sayso that audiences at Duke Power Playhouse may sometimes find it difficult to sort out where dramatic reality ends and pure fantasy begins. Rahman's starting point is real enough, drawn from a 1973 incident when New York City Police killed 10-year-old Clifford Glover as he and his stepfather were being apprehended on suspicion of burglary.
Details of the city, mostly disclosed by the son's surviving parents, Acts and Awilda Benjamin, are real enough for anyone familiar with such Queens landmarks as Jamaica Avenue and Springfield Boulevard -- or with the retail reasons a woman might have for making a pilgrimage to Bonwit Teller. Acts keeps his mind off his son's death by building a vintage car from stray parts and dreaming of the day he will regally ride those thoroughfares. Awilda's trip to Bonwit's yielded the best white gloves they had to offer, the crowning touch to her outfit for Sunday church, where she finds Christian comfort from a phony Pastor.
The fantasy element of Rahman's drama is along for the ride from the very beginning. Instead of on the front lawn or in the garage, Dad's car-in-progress is heaped in the living room. On Q Productions set designer Sylvia Lynch makes the automobile's contours clear enough, but there is so much Frankenstein-monster scrappiness in its components that Dad's assertion that his project is nearly complete may be another layer of fantasy.
We certainly can't accuse these Benjamins of being practical folk. Acts will need to build considerable horsepower into his engine and do massive damage to his home in order to bring his dream car to the street. Nor is the family particularly inquisitive or communicative. The government check for Linus Benjamin's wrongful death has arrived in the mail, but only Acts seems to know the details of the night Linus was shot in the back. Stuff like that gets into New York's infamous tabloids.
Personally, I would have preferred to see Rahman explore how Linus's death triggers the disintegration of the family that survives him, but the playwright clearly has other aims. The Benjamins have gone through their maladjustments and seem to be a symbolic microcosm of Black America today: ostensibly free but enslaved to materialism, religion, and gangsta thuggery.
Oh yes, there's another Benjamin -- Walter, Linus's elder brother, who now insists on being called Blood. His devolution speaks most directly -- and with the richest irony -- to the senseless shooting. Little brother was wrongly shot after falling under suspicion of burglary. Big brother is first seen breaking-and-entering, gun in hand, besieging his own home!
As Blood, Sultan Omar El-Amin gives a brilliantly calibrated performance that brings a freshly surreal aura to a character who would otherwise seem clichéd -- to anyone who has seen at least 20 screen or TV teens who were outwardly tough and bloodthirsty while inwardly vulnerable and suffering.
Director Jermaine Nakia Lee doesn't elicit the same balance from Mom and Dad. Myrna J. Key is too vain, shrill, and shrewish to earn my sympathy as Awilda, failing to find a through line in her characterization that will make her secular redemption plausible in the denouement. A small part of that difficulty must be attributed to Quentin "Q" Talley's ultra-mellow portrait of Dad, a saintly mechanic who smilingly absorbs all of Awilda's abuse -- except for one big blow-up. Talley's deep equanimity, substituted for a deceptively blissful escape that should float tenuously on the thinnest ice, turns Rahman's entire story arc and its hard-earned optimism into little more than "father knows best."
Technically, I'm expecting The Mojo to improve as it moves into its second week. The area rug in Awilda's living room may not stick any more securely to the stage than it did on opening night, nor will Acts' rampage likely shock anybody with its wreckage, but surely Blood will arrive onstage with a gun that fires and doesn't fall repeatedly apart.
Comedy and macabre surprise mix rather memorably toward the end when the Pastor arrives at the Benjamin residence, hungry for dinner and the proceeds of that yet-to-be-cashed wrongful death check. De'Arcy McVay endows the cleric with a properly sleazy zeal -- or at least he's trying to -- but his true nature is a secret best kept between me and costume designer Maxine Martin.