A play based on the real-life killing of a 10-year-old African American boy by a police officer sounds like something that would be written today, sparked by any one of many such incidents around the country in recent years.
Somehow it’s even more sobering that Aishah Rahman’s “The Mojo and the Sayso” premiered in 1988 and was inspired by the 1973 shooting of Clifford Glover by an undercover New York cop, demonstrating how little progress has been made in nearly 50 years.
Now Oakland Theater Project is giving Rahman’s play its much-belated Bay Area premiere, directed by Lower Bottom Playaz founder and Oakland Poet Laureate Ayodele Nzinga.
The circumstances in “The Mojo and the Sayso” closely parallel what happened to Glover. The play ‘s Linus, 10 years old, was walking along with his father his to work at 5 in the morning in Queens when the child was shot by a plainclothes cop in an unmarked car.
The play takes place three years later. Everyone in the family is dealing with the unfathomable grief in different ways — and, understandably, dealing with it poorly.
Mother Awilda loses herself in religiosity, clinging to Jesus in an almost crazed way that negates everything in the world but her god and her loss. Paige Mayes plays Awilda with a wild urgency bordering on melodrama that suits the heightened jazz aesthetic of Rahman’s play, periodically shifting into dancerly movements.
Portrayed with long-suffering exasperation by Dane Troy, the father, Acts, the only one who was present at the incident, stubbornly refuses to talk about it and instead rhapsodizes interminably about the car that he’s building. Surviving elder son Walter, who now calls himself Blood (Stanley Hunt, cycling between bravado and sheepishness), plays at being a hardened tough guy, waving a gun around and fantasizing about revenge, as a way of grappling with survivor’s guilt.
Reginald Wilkins provides a useful outlet for all the simmering hostility as the Pastor that Awilda adores but that all the men in the family think is a fraud. He talks a pious game with a charismatic preacher ‘s cadence but is transparently an avaricious hypocrite, glowering at Acts whenever Awilda ‘s back his is turned and jutting his neck out like a bird.
Nzinga’s staging handles the play’s fantastical or magical realist aspects with matter-of-fact aplomb. Strange things happen in the play from time to time because strange things happen, and sometimes they need to happen to make any kind of redemption possible.
In Karla Hargrave’s eye-catching scenic design, the stage area is dominated by the immense skeletal chrome outline of the fancy car that Acts is building inside the house, while the back wall is full of candles, flowers and framed family photos like a kind of shrine, putting the competing obsessions of the central couple quite literally on display.
Although the play is set in a fictional “now,” there’s an early 20th-century feel to Regina Evans’ costume design, with Awilda in a lacey white Sunday dress and Acts in clean white coveralls that look at a glance almost like a pinstripe suit . And that’s not even getting into Pastor’s costume change, which can’t fail to get a big reaction when it happens.
Some of the things people do in the play are hard to fathom, such as when Blood enters the house as if it’s under siege. But much of what goes on is not necessarily to be taken literally. We’re told repeatedly that Acts has never said what happened when Linus was killed, although you’d think there would have been some testimony at the officer’s trial. Regardless, it’s important to the action of the play and to the healing of the family that he tell the story.
Considering the deeply entrenched ruts that grief has driven the family into, a kind of resolution and grace happens surprisingly quickly. Under the circumstances, though, any kind of happy ending is something to be grateful for.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at email@example.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
‘THE MOJO AND THE SAYSO’
By Aishah Rahman, presented by Oakland Theater Project
Through: June 26
Where: FLAX art & design, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $10-$52; oaklandtheaterproject.org