Review of Functional: The Thelonious Monk Story at A Call to Conscience

    When Functional: The Thelonious Monk Story was produced for a brief run a few years ago with a  different title by A Call to Conscience Interactive Theater for Social Change, I said in my review that I hoped it would get more exposure. Now it is getting it.

    If still has a one-weekend run through a matinee on April 22 at the Missouri History Museum. It still is a fascinating and moving play about a fascinating and moving individual. My memory is not what it once was (if it ever was), and watching it this time, I thought maybe playwright Mariah Richardson had tweaked it in a couple of places. Director Fannie Belle Lebby assured me that it was essentially the same script, but she had been able to enlarge the cast, eliminating the doubling from the earlier production. And she had been able to refine some elements of the production. But it is still a bare-bones staging, with the focus on the piano center-stage with the bass and drums. 

    Thelonius Sphere Monk was one of the many artists in many fields, such as Robert Schumann, Vincent Van Gogh, and Tennessee Willliams, who spent time under psychiatric care, perennially raising the question of whether there might be some connection between artistic creative excellence and mental illness. Do the same crossed circuits in the brain cause both genius and madness? Is that why such people sometimes refuse to take the medications they’ve been prescribed for their mental health because the medicine’s effect is to short-circuit their creativity?

    That is not, as I recall, an issue taken up by Richardson in her script, though I assume it might have been an issue with Monk. Certainly Monk, the great jazz pianist and composer, one of the founders of bebop and a major influence on musicians from the mid-twentieth century on, had periods of feverish work both composing and playing music and making attempts to explain in words what he was doing, followed by periods of depression and silence, practically the definition of bi-polar.

    In one of those down times, he was sitting quietly on the street but unresponsive to the policeman who questions him and takes him to the mental ward at Bellevue. There he would plead with his wife and his doctor to get him out of this place he hated and back to his piano.  Imprisoned in a straitjacket, he cried, “I’m in the encyclopedia! I’m a genius!” And he was, and on the cover of Time magazine as the representative of the bebop era in jazz.

    Playwright Richardson highlighted Blacks’ problems with the medical establishment when Monk’s wife visits him in the hospital with a friend who is white. And the doctor keeps turning to the white friend to talk about Monk’s case and even to answer the wife’s questions. Director Lebby places the doctor between the two women, so when he turns to the white friend to talk he turns his back on Monk’s wife Nellie.

    Crucial to any such portrait of Thelonius Monk is the person playing Monk. A Call to Conscience scored big time on that front. Philip Graves is not only an accomplished pianist with experience on the local scene and beyond, he is also an accomplished actor. Monk had a habit of getting up from the piano during a set, letting the bass and percussion play, and sort of shuffle-dancing for a chorus. Graves does that. And he has those extremes of Monk’s illness, too. Graves plays it all, and plays it right.

    Talichia Noah plays Monk’s wife Nellie, refusing to be ignored by the doctor, always devoted to her husband and whatever he needs. Equally devoted to her brilliant son is Michelle Dillard as Monk’s mother. Saraiya Kalu decorates the stage delightfully as a girlfriend of the artist. With the appropriate style, Sara Figueroa plays the fascinating figure  of the Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, a Rothschild and a patroness of several leading players of the jazz that fascinated her. She sheltered Charlie “Yardbird” Parker in her mansion in his final days, and she did the same for Monk. Terrell Randell and Ron Baker play  colleagues and fellow jazz musicians Billy Taylor and Bud Powell. Mason Brown does well with the thankless role of the doctor in the mental ward. And Michael J. Paplanus plays the sympathetic figure of a high school teacher who wound up as Monk’s agent in the days when he, like Billie Holliday, lost his cabaret card because of drug accusations and couldn’t play in New York. 

    Outstanding throughout were the other two members of Monk’s trio, Darrell Mixon on bass and Alfred Barnes on percussion. Dwayne Bosman served as Music Consultant.

    Linda Lawson-Mixon was responsible for the minimal but sufficient set and lights, greatly supplemented by director Lebby’s multimedia design with slides of important places and people. Ponchita Argieaard handles costumes and props, and Terrell Randall Sr. designed sound. Stage Manager Kathy Gamble pulls it all together.

    Because of both its subject and the craft and skill with which it is done,  A Call to Conscience Interactive Theater for Social Change’s  Functional: The Thelonious Monk Story deserves to appear regularly on our town’s stages.

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo courtesy of A Call to Conscience
    Philip Graves as Thelonious Monk on piano, Darrell Mixon, on bass and Alfred Barnes on percussion in Functional: The Thelonious Monk Story.