Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
What's Going On (A Soldier's Story)
Also see Mary's review of The Dog / The Cat
Nevada Conservatory Theatre and UNLV's School of Music recently presented the premier of What's Going On (A Soldier's Story) in their New Works Festival. Written by Carl Anthony Tillman, What's Going On combines the music of Marvin Gaye's album of the same name with the story of a contemporary Army veteran's difficult homecoming. It's a promising work, well worthy of further development.
After completing three tours in Iraq, where his performance earned him a promotion to sergeant, Tyrell ("T-Rex") returns to his urban Baltimore home. Although warmly welcomed by family and old friends, he struggles to cope with his traumatic wartime experience, and misses the military regimentation that transformed him from a downward-spiraling teen into a responsible adult. As the old triggers once again surround him, he seeks solace in drugs, and his short fuse costs him a chance to reunite with Keisha, the young woman he once loved.
It's a compelling story, and Marvin Gaye's music provides irresistible accompaniment. As presented at UNLV, the play is too brief (1 hour, 20 minutes) to allow the characters to be sufficiently fleshed out, which robs the drama of impact. In addition, while Gaye's gentle and soulful music is pure pleasure to listen to, it doesn't always provide the right vibe for the story. It forces Tyrell to express himself in brooding soul-searching vocals from beginning to end, yet we know that he is also quick to anger and frequently frustrated by the world around him. (These traits got him into trouble as a teen and, despite his newfound maturity, combat has left his nerves pretty raw.) These powerful feelings beg to be expressed in their full range, but the brooding, self-reflective music does not fully accommodate them.
Faced with this challenge, actor Michael Jahlil sang the role beautifully and with feeling. Tyrell's pain was palpable. Jahlil is an engaging performer, and the audience was hanging on every note. Several of his numbers were downright mesmerizing. However, the music never allowed him to cut loose and express Tyrell's pent-up feelings in a way that got the blood moving. The character clearly needed this, and the audience did as well. Forced to keep Tyrell's impulses bottled up, Jahlil spent much of the show stalking the stage like a caged lion. His arms stayed stiffly glued to his sides, fists clenched. His bottled-up feelings cried out for appropriate vocals, and probably some choreography as well. (The frenzied dance sequences of West Side Story spring to mind.)
For the most part, the youthful supporting actorsall of whom played multiple roleshave not yet acquired the skills to make their characters believable. In this group, the best work was by Jalen Bell. Playing a homeless ex-Marine, a drug dealer, and Tyrell's disabled father, Bell had an easy presence, an expressive face, and a captivating voice; with more training, he could become an actor to watch.
Director Nate Bynum's staging was simple but effective, moving the action on and off of slightly raised platforms to convey different locations with minimal scenery and no down-time between scenes; however, in conveying Tyrell's isolation, he staged too many of the character's speeches direct to the audience rather than to the other actors on stage. Helga Watkins' projections provided a good sense of place. In one scene set in a church, these elements combined with John Wampler's lighting design to produce a particularly striking stage picture.
The live band, under James Whiting's musical direction, enhanced the musical experience without overwhelming the vocals.
While What's Going On (A Soldier's Story) in its current form has concluded its all-too-brief three-day run, it deserves a larger audience. Hopefully, Tillman will continue to develop his concept so that he can realize its full potential.
What's Going On (A Soldier's Story) ran through November 4, 2018, at the Black Box Theatre at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas NV. For information on upcoming productions, go to nct.unlv.edu.