A spirited argument happens at the most unexpected of places in “Jimmy and Lorraine: A Musing,” a heady one-act that opened over the weekend at Pillsbury House Theatre. The ripostes take place on the dance floor as actors playing literary luminaries James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and others are getting down to “Shotgun,” the 1965 hit by Junior Walker & the All Stars.
The surprising throwback moves, which nod to the Swim, the Mashed Potato and the Watusi, are fun to watch even as the music and dancing make the debate dialogue challenging to deliver (kudos to the nearly out-of-breath trio that constitutes the cast) and a touch hard to follow.
Still, it seems like all of that is by design in Brian Jennings’ production. In the 1960s milieu of the play, violence, dialogue and revolutionary dance all are mashed together in one bracing package.
The dance scene also is a metaphor for “Jimmy and Lorraine,” written by Talvin Wilks, a theater talent best known in the Twin Cities for directing shows at Penumbra (“Benevolence,” “The Ballad of Emmett Till”) and for teaching theater at the University of Minnesota.
Wilks subtitles the play “a musing,” as it’s drawn from the writings and biographies of Hansberry (“A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”) and Baldwin (“Giovanni’s Room,” “The Fire Next Time”).
The two comrades of the page were friends in life but are brought even closer in Wilks’ imagining. And as activist writers with a fervent desire to have America live up to its creeds, they have a lot in common.
Director Jennings’ artful production takes place on designer Leazah Behrens’ canvas wall of a set. Video designer Bill Cottman’s projected images and Katharine Horowitz’s sound design help to establish the ambience of an era that resonates today.
Jon-Michael Reese plays Baldwin, and he has the writer’s mannerisms, sass and sanded voice down pat.
Baldwin was famous for dragging on his cigarette — which seems ever present in Reese’s hand — and for his appreciation of scotch. The sweat on the hardworking actor’s brow signals how thoroughly he has captured Baldwin’s just-below-the-surface fire.
If Vinecia Coleman’s Hansberry is not as hotly or sharply drawn, it’s partly because the actor telescopes the playwright’s early death. Still, Coleman is credible as she captures the playwright’s heart, desires and fierce intellect.
Sasha Andreev probably has the most fun in the show as he gets to play a slew of white personages, including Baldwin’s literary nemesis Norman Mailer, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s husband. Andreev uses accents, eyewear and gestures to demarcate his distinct characters, including playing the lovers of both Hansberry and Baldwin.
Jennings’ frontal, demanding production of “Jimmy and Lorraine” makes it clear that these figures aren’t ghosts. They come to throbbing life in the show even if the tension in the play arises from literary arguments instead of action.
The show also makes clear that the ’60s are not dead, as evidenced by the culture wars that continue about how to define that era.
Were the changes a step in righting the nation’s wrongs and living up to its ideals? Or was that an era when things went off the rails?
“Jimmy and Lorraine” lands squarely on one side. It is a forceful work that comes square at you and asks you to listen, to hear the ruminations of figures struggling with loving a country that does not love them back. It’s well worth the attention, focus and guts required.