Encore Michigan

“Mr. Joy” brings laughs, tears and searing truth from headlines to the stage

Review October 05, 2016 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – One of the great canards that we find in the news today is that white people in positions of power – legislators, politicians, blow-hards in the media – know what it’s like to be black, struggling to make an income and living in the inner city.

In fact, I’d challenge the idea that white people in the city of Ann Arbor – where Theatre Nova is staging Mr. Joy, a play by Daniel Beaty – know much about the experience of a black student attending the University of Michigan.

mr-joy-theatre-02-novaMr. Joy, a one-actor show, performed beautifully by Matthew Webb, takes us through Harlem with a series of inter-connected characters, all played, of course, by Mr. Webb. The story surrounds the savage beating of Mr. Joy, a Chinese merchant with a shoe-repair store in a black neighborhood where people in the community have been taking shoes to be shined and cobbled for many years.

There is James, a homeless artist. DeShawn is a troubled teen who has found religion in his life, but still has friends in the ‘hood who haven’t. Clarissa is a wide-eyed, innocent adolescent girl who is HIV-positive, being raised by her grandmother, Bessie. There is Peter who is a young black man wanting to be a professional opera singer. John Lee is Mr. Joy’s son, a wealthy real estate developer, and Becky, his white girlfriend. And there is Clifford, John’s boss, and his transgender daughter Ashes.

Mr. Webb transitions from character to character to character on a dime, doing a splendid job of separating them in voice, demeanor and delivery. That one actor plays them all is to the show’s advantage. It would not be as effective if it had a full cast (perhaps one male actor and one female would work). But the one-actor production delivers more pop and power.

Beaty’s story, which premiered in Pittsburgh in early 2015, examines how people can get along, and then not, and what separates them, and what binds them back together. Despite the well-known tension between inner city African-Americans and Asian business owners in those neighborhoods, there is great mutual respect and love between Mr. Joy and his community. Even so, we hear from some of the characters a little embedded resentment and jealousy expressed about Mr. Joy’s success as a small business man, and that seems to cast an odor around the tragedy of his beating.

Mr. Joy not only has been a counselor and mentor in the community. When he has the chance in his hospital bed to identify his attacker, he refuses – seemingly out of loyalty to the community rather than fear. “They know not what they do.”

There are laughs in the show. Beaty wisely balances some of the more somber monologues with pleasant riffs of sass and natural human comedy. Depending on your experience, it also brings a few tears. Some of the audience mumbled a few affirmative “uh huh”s as if to validate Beaty and Webb’s depiction of “what it is really like.”

Mr. Joy, directed by Billicia Hines, with set design by Kelsey Nowak, lighting design by Daniel C. Walker and sound and costume by Carla Milarch, runs through October 23.

This story, which seems to come at us almost weekly in one form or another every week in the news, is eye-opening, mind feeding and heartening.

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