Sunday, February 15, 2015

reviews - CONVICTION - Black Theatre Troupe

David Hemphill
(photo: Laura Durant)
For more information on this production, that runs to February 22nd, click here.

"Conviction focuses on a convict named Johnny who performs a concert of Billy Strayhorn songs for his fellow inmates.  While not a completely successful play, it does feature a very good performance by Black Theatre Troupe Artistic Director David Hemphill as Johnny and an extremely talented quintet performing Strayhorn’s songs.  With a premise that touches upon interesting topics and over a dozen of Strayhorn’s tunes, with a few tweaks I believe this play could have quite a life. Phoenix playwright Ben Tyler’s one man play follows gay inmate Johnny.  We learn he was once a professional jazz singer, who, like Strayhorn, worked with Duke Ellington.  Tyler interweaves Johnny’s commentary on his and Strayhorn’s past around some well placed Strayhorn tunes as he jokes and sings for his audience. While full of humor, there are plenty of serious moments, including some evocative flashbacks of Johnny in solitary. Tyler’s idea to combine a more modern gay man’s troubled life with the openly gay and unapologetic Strayhorn’s is effective.  We get a strong sense of both of their lives with the facts that Johnny introduces about Strayhorn not seeming just like items from Wikipedia tossed haphazardly into a play. The similarities and contrasts that Johnny makes between their two lives are delivered with a deep sense of feeling, compassion and a hint of regret which work perfectly with the songs, as many of Strayhorn’s lyrics touch upon similar themes. The play on words of the title of the piece is also quite effective. However, there are several loose ends in the piece, moments of confusion that need clarity as well as some running gags that wear thin. For example, the opening scene and the transitions between Johnny’s show, the flashbacks and the scenes in solitary need improvement, as at times it seems like the whole concert might just be a dream that Johnny is having while he’s in solitary, which I don’t believe was Tyler’s intent. However, there are some effective dramatic touches, with Hemphill evoking a deep conviction of his own in his portrayal, especially in the emotionally charged parole board speech we witness as well as the moment when we discover exactly what it was that put Johnny behind bars. Conviction wants to be a tribute and homage to Strayhorn, Johnny and others who struggle with fitting in to society while having no regrets at the conviction they have in doing so, and is somewhat successful in its goal.  With a fine performance by Hemphill and a smoking quintet, the Black Theatre Troupe production of the play is a fine piece of theatre, but I hope Tyler works on the drama some more to clean up some of the plays shortcomings." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

"A prison is an unusual setting for a musical revue, but it's an evocative choice in Conviction, a one-man show based on the Billy Strayhorn songbook and written by Valley playwright Ben Tyler.  Revues usually are frilly and frivolous affairs, but Strayhorn's songs — at least the ones with lyrics — often are infused with melancholy. So it makes sense to take them to a place where loneliness and regret threaten to overpower hope.  In the world-premiere production by Black Theatre Troupe, David Hemphill, the company's longtime artistic director, stars as an inmate named Johnny. Johnny's connection to Strayhorn is more than just musical. As a gay man, he admires Strayhorn for having had the courage to be "out" in 1940, though he is also keenly aware of what that decision cost the great composer. And so when Hemphill performs tunes such tunes as "Day Dream," "Your Love Has Faded" and "Lush Life," he infuses them not just with bluesy wistfulness inherent in the music but with the years of anguish his character has endured. It's a moving performance, although there is plenty of comic relief along the way. Facts about Strayhorn's life are slipped in organically throughout the play, which, under the sure-handed direction of Anthony Runfola, is both a poignant character study and an emotional concert experience. And though the story is simple, it ends with a potent dramatic punch." -Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic (click here to read the complete review)

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