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The Bronzeville Arts Ensemble and Madison’s Theatre Lila's production of "The Mojo and the Sayso" at the Milwaukee Rep blends the painfully real and the fantastic.

Marvette Knight and Gavin Lawrence Photo by Ross Zentner

Marvette Knight and Gavin Lawrence. Photo by Ross Zentner.

In these times of heightened awareness and raw reactions surrounding police violence and the deaths of black men and women, there is plenty of angry debate and consensus about causes, solutions, reparations and retributions. Aishah Rahman’s play, The Mojo and the Sayso, isn’t about policy or polemic. Written almost 30 years ago, it’s a fantasia of heartache and mourning—a theme and variations that plays the conflicting varieties of grief and remorse against each other until they resolve in a quiet cadence.

It’s music that Milwaukee needs to hear. Not the only tune, of course, but one that surely resonates with events of recent history. Which is why this production by the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble and Madison’s Theatre Lila is such an important event.

We know we’re in a certain kind of theatrical world when we first enter the theater and catch sight of Christopher Dunham’s set. It’s a simple, working-class living room—maybe even like that of Raisin in the Sun, 20 years later—except that it’s also part auto repair shop. Sitting in the middle of the hardwood floor is the carcass of an old car, one that’s being lovingly restored by Acts (Gavin Lawrence), the man of the house. While he’s fiddling under the engine, his wife, Awilda (Marvette Knight), is fluttering around the edges of the room, in search of her white gloves. It’s time for church, and she is late. Acts offers very little help.

In fact, the two talk past each other in ways that make you know something is wrong. And it is. It’s the three-year anniversary of the death of their son, shot by a police officer who mistook him for a burglary suspect. A substantial settlement check has arrived, but it sits on a corner table for most of the act.

Marvette Knight and Gavin Lawrence Photo by Ross Zentner

Marvette Knight and Gavin Lawrence. Photo by Ross Zentner.

The metaphors are strong with this one, each family member turning to an obsession to fill the hole left by such a devastating loss. Another son, Blood (Isáyah Phillips), has taken to the street, but Acts sees through his tough-guy act, and something of a conversation begins. As emotions surface, there seems to be only one thing keeping this family from reconnecting—the ominous figure of the pastor (Wigasi Brant), who plans to take advantage of the situation for his own gain. From there, Mojo and the Sayso, moves to an otherworldly catharsis that will have people talking for some time.

But at the core of this fantastic tale is a loving family, and director Jessica Lanius finds both the warmth and the poetry in Rahman’s play. It’s not an easy task. Rahman’s writing calls for actors who can embody real and recognizable people, and also for vocal instruments who can spin extended, jazzy riffs of language. It’s a charmed combination, and the actors make it work beautifully: Blood’s sharp hip-hop boasts, Awilda’s reveries invoking the music that’s been part of her past, and Acts’s beat-poet-like proclamations about a dream family road trip.

At the end of Mojo and the Sayso, that trip has just begun. But thanks to this superb production, we feel like we’ve been traveling with them for some time.

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