Pity the music lover who pops into NYTW all juiced up for some soulful blues and becomes trapped in the gloomy meditations of a narcissistic trumpet player and his windy muse. The theater’s reconfigured auditorium is promisingly dressed in the visual idiom of a jazz club — gilded mirrors, floor-length red drapes and a bare-planked thrust stage outlined by honest-to-gosh footlights. And a couple of horn players standing by look like they mean business. But the music delivered in an uneasy mix of jazz, flamenco, blues and rap-rant is no more than background noise for a “portrait of an artist trapped between his art and a hard place.”
As introduced by his overdressed, oddly truculent Muse (Mildred Ruiz), Junior McCullough (Steven Sapp) is “a new breed” of musician, a genius from the ghetto, so overwhelmed by the musical influences fused into his soul that he stands in denial of them all — a “martyr” who has “lost his breath.”
In a litany of bad poetry, Junior’s Muse tries to inspire him with memories of his glory days as a jazz man and reminders of his place in the pantheon of black jazz legends.
But Junior is having none of it. He views his musical gifts as a curse — a reflection of the social injustice and all-around miseries of his racial history. “I’m cursed to carry this,” he says, brandishing his horn.
And so on. And so on.
In the face of Junior’s stubborn refusal to take his place among the greats, his Muse gets more and more insistent that he claim his legacy. Breaking into a clumsy flamenco dance and calling on all the classical gods and modern music masters she can think of, Ruiz is so relentless, she more or less wears the guy down. Not to mention the audience.
For his part, Sapp is the soul of angry, intransigent youth, brooding on the injustices inflicted on his family by “the United Mistake of America” and furious with the artists too cowardly to raise their horns to “blow down walls.” It’s a strong perf, but so stuck on its single note that it makes Junior every bit as annoying as his nattering, tyrannical Muse.
If helmer Talvin Wilks does little to lighten the oppressiveness of the angry poetry — aside from allowing the two wandering brass players their occasional licks — he does set the ordeal in a handsome locale.
However, the dramatic effect of the raised stage is limited, with the harsh beams of those footlights drilling into the front rows of the house below stage level. Ticketholders for those low seats are well advised to hunch down and avert their eyes — which, come to think of it, is good advice in general.