Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"The Mojo and the Sayso" is a relatively obscure play from the late 1980's by the little known playwright Aishah Rahman. Inspired by the 1973 killing of a ten-year-old boy by New York City police looking for an adult burgler, this is neither a social-problem drama nor a political protest against racial conflict. It's a look at a self-contained (rather too self-contained) family trying to deal with grief and loss, anger and guilt. The language of the play is enormously complex; it uses varied and nuanced rhythms, striking accents, and purely physical theatrical gestures to evoke the musicality of these emotions and of these relationships. In this imaginatively designed (the brilliant Jennifer Zeyl) and well-directed production by Valerie Curtis-Newton, a solid cast delivers an invested and often moving performance. In the end, however, the play seems too much about its artifice, too conscious of its technique and too aware of its effort.
The unusual setting is a living room dominated by a full-scale automobile that is being constantly repaired and constructed by Acts, the father of the dead boy. Zeyl has designed a set in which that car, a great, sprawling road-yacht convertible, is surrounded by brick half walls, so close that the occupants can barely scrape between car and wall, and high, hanging windows suggesting a building above this room. In the corners are small shrines of candles that the mother, Awilda, lights in memory of the child and as ritual for her vastly important religious connection. A flim-flam preacher, Pastor, who is a literal embodiment of all the layers of deception that are often found in the hypocritically faithful, impersonates that religious conviction.
Finally, the older brother of the slain child now calls himself Blood and is filled with anger and potential violence, breaking into his own family home and threatening his parents with an unloaded gun. His insistence that Acts tell him exactly what happened the night of the killing, and that he take responsibility for his part in it drives the action. Awilda's decision of how to deal with the money from a "wrongful death" settlement leads to her own epiphany, and the resolution of the family crisis along with the completion of the car and their metaphoric journey away from the confinement of this room to the freedom of the open road.
Lindsay Smiling is quite wonderful as the makeshift mechanic, Acts. His nervous energy, his constant effort trying to restore a broken vehicle, trying to make ill-used machinery work again, trying to avoid all the greasy, gritty emotions clogging this family, all of that is portrayed with focus and compelling authority. Balancing that is a strong performance by Jose A. Rufino as Blood. The duality of a street-tough, potentially dangerous young man and a needy, injured child is touching and convincing. I like Tracy Michelle Hughes as Awilda, but can't really see a lot of depth behind the desire to find absolution in her faith. Timothy McCuen Piggee plays the duplicitous Pastor well, but the role is the most artificial and contrived, and is (for me) too obvious and one-dimensional.
That really leads to my major problem with this play, and it is with the play rather than the production or the performance. The symbolism of the car, the candles, the exposure of the hypocritical Preacher, the use of highly poetical language mixed with vernacular, the desire to make all of this greater and more meaningful than the telling of a story, all seemed forced and inauthentic. I don't mean that the emotions between these characters, and inside these individuals was false, but that the writing felt contrived, and the theatrical gestures too flamboyant and "artsy" for this story. Late in the play one character says, "If you can find your mojo, then you'll have your sayso." My problem with this play is that it all feels like the playwright's sayso, and not enough about the mojo of these people trying to put their lives together again.