Monk: Portrait of a Troubled Genius

  Monk Returns to the Nuyorican Poets Café!


 Psychohistory as Theater


There are many ways to recount history.  Undoubtedly the most reliable method is that used in the works of professional historians, but it is not always the most compelling.  This has become especially so as the historical profession attempts to become more like the social sciences, privileging statistical analysis and theory construction over a dramatic narrative. This approach may serve just fine in discourses between historians, their colleagues and students, but it takes a good story to capture the hearts and imagination of lay audiences with no particular interest in the past. The historical novel has stepped into this vacuum and helped spread the scholarship of historians to a wider audience with varying degrees of success. It is a risky enterprise however, since the rules of evidence for writing historical fiction are not as rigorously defined as those for writing scholarly histories. This is also true of movies and theater. 

 Yet even so, in the USA the black theater has been on the forefront in clarifying the heroic legacy of hope, faith, struggle and cultural innovation that characterizes the black experience in the modern world. And based upon the nature of cinema and theater, as they have evolved in the US in any case, the theater remains the best medium for the serious exploration of complex character studies. While American films are increasingly driven by car chases, guns, bombs, and special effects, the theatrical drama remains character driven.  Furthermore, given the economics of theater and film production, the theater offers far more opportunities to control the final product, allowing black creative artists to define the image of Afro-Americans in the cultural marketplace rather than some money grubbing philistine interested only in the bottom line.

 Thus, for those who are interested in the Afro-American experience, or good theater, or both, it is great news that playwright Lawrence Holder, a master of the historical drama, and Rome Neal, an accomplished actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to late jazz piano master and composer Thelonius Monk, have collaborated on a play about this great musician and fascinating character. Both men are veterans of the theater, bold souls who persists against formidable odds to bring complex productions about Afro-American life and culture to the New York stage; a heroic enterprise or a fool’s errand depending upon your point of view. 

 Holder is a prolific author who estimates that he has written at least seventy-five plays – exploring contemporary as well as historical subjects. While an impressive feat on the face of it, one realizes the full measure of his accomplishment when compared to the fact that William Shakespeare’s oeuvre consists of thirty-seven plays. Hence seasoned patrons of black theater in New York City have all seen a Lawrence Holder play, for the range of his interests offers something for everybody. A man of eclectic interests, Holder has written several plays about the great southern essayist, novelist and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston, as well as plays about George Bush, Dr. Leonora Fulani and Malcolm X.  In fact I first saw the great Denzel Washington – who went on to become a two time Academy Award winner but was then an unknown – playing Malcolm X in Holders play, “When the Chicken’s Came Home to Roost.” 

 Now Holder has penned a play about the enigmatic genius Thelonious Monk; a man who often jumped up from his piano stool and danced, while the band played on.  A quintessential New Yorker of Carolina roots, and, I suspect from looking at his classically West African visage, of Geechee heritage, Monk was one of the late forties hep cats who launched the Be Bop revolution that made big bands passé’ for the young virtuoso’s who would take modern complex Afro-American instrumental art music to higher ground.  All the bad cats among the boppers – Bird, Diz, Klook, Max Roach, Tommy Potter, Charlie Christian, Oscar Pettiford, et al – say Monk was the man. 

 From their legendary jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, it was Monk’s approach to the harmonics of chord changes, along with Klook’s drumming, that made sense of the emerging style called “Bop;” an artistically challenging style that captured the imagination of all serious instrumentalists who heard it, and won devotees among musicians and fans of music around the world. A man with great generosity of spirit toward his fellow musicians, Monk said of his pivotal role in the creation of Bop: “If my own work had more importance than others, it is because the piano is the key instrument in music.”

 A longtime lover of the art of jazz, Holder has been a serious fan of Monk’s music since he was a teenager.  And he is old enough to have witnessed the late piano virtuoso perform live on many occasions. His first attempt to essay the character of Thelonius Monk for the stage came in 1992, when he wrote  “Monk and Bud,” a play about Monk and his great contemporary jazz pianist Bud Powell.  “I wrote Monk in “1999” because Rome asked me to write it.  He has an affinity for monk; they were born under the same birth sign. And he really digs Monk’s music.” In ninety minutes Holder has miraculously captured the many moods of Monk and presents us with an arresting character. It is a script that incorporates equal proportions of intelligence and insight. Attributes that, when coupled with solid historical research, can result in myth making that reveals deep truths about the subject of a play.

 In “Monk,” Holder has chosen the internal conflicts of an artist in turmoil as the major theme of the play as well as the source of its dramatic tension. “I want to give the audience a vision of a creative artist in crisis.  The sense of the crisis is what creates the drama for the audience as it unfurls, and the way he resolves it. Generally speaking we are dealing with a life cycle, so the unfolding of the crisis takes us right through the person’s life. Different things occurred during different moments and they create different sensations which he gives voice to. There is also much discussion of his music, and frank discussion of his drug use.  But our most important task is to give the audience a sense of Thelonius Monk as a physical person whom things happen to, and who eventually dies, as well as an understanding of the great artist as a human being.”

Monk At Work 

The Genuis At Work

Although “the play is the thing,” as the old adage councils, it is the actor who must bring it to life. Rome Neal seems born to this role. It is a demanding role that requires the actor to create the illusion that we are sharing the inner-life of a multifaceted genius.  With only a sparse set dominated by a piano, Rome riffs on the ivories, laughs and cries, lapses into fits of madness, offers complex commentaries on Jazz music, dances over and again to punctuate points made in his monologue, paints poignant portraits of other master musicians in the Afro-American tradition, and discuss the Darwinian environment of the music business which – like the jungle and show business in general – is red of tooth and claw! 

 A master of the actor’s craft, Rome is the rare thespian who is able to employ all the energies of his body and soul in bringing a character to life.  Equipped with a great script, Rome’s performance reminds me of Andre’ Watts playing Franz Lists’ Etudes on solo piano, or Isaac Stern’s solo performances of the Paganini variations on the violin. Some readers may find the comparison of Rome’s performance of a one-man play about a jazz musician with solo performances of classical music a bit odd; that a comparison with say, McCoy Tyner playing solo piano, would be more fitting.

But this argument fails to take into account that McCoy, like all jazz musicians, is playing variations on a theme that he improvises in the moment; while Rome is interpreting a script, which is the literary counterpart of the classic musical score, which, unlike the jazz score, affords no room for improvisation on the text. Hence, just as William Shakespeare is the literary counterpart of Johan Sebastian Bach, Lawrence Holder is the literary counterpart of William Grant Still.  I chose Still, rather than the Pulitzer Prize winning composer George Walker for instance, because like Holder, Still’s work consciously explores Afro-American traditions.

 Armed with Holder’s poetic and thoughtful text, Rome Neal anoints his audiences with great dramatic meditations on the life that was Thelonius Monk.  If the mark of true virtuosity is to make the difficult look easy, then Rome personifies the dramatic virtuoso. He can change our moods from joy to pathos with his body language and an expressive face that suggests a West African version of the Greek Masks of tragedy and comedy.  Aided by music and lighting effects, he makes full use of the few props that are available on the sparse set of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, which is the performance I saw – a performance that was roundly praised by his audience.

By simply changing hats Rome is able to give us different sides of Monk’s colorful personality; from the ebullient optimist confident of his place among the geniuses of modern music, to the depressed pessimist who lapses into fits of madness and despair. These are the marks of a great talent to be sure, but the complexities of the thespians art cannot be mastered with talent alone.  It also takes plenty of hard work i.e. study and practice.  Musicians call it “paying your dues.”

 Rome has paid plenty of dues to arrive at his present level of artistic achievement.  He was twenty years old before he was introduced to acting, virtually stumbling into a college acting class when forced to take a humanities elective while working on a business degree.  He showed promise quickly and was cast in “Our Town,” a play by Thornton Wilder. He soon fell in love with acting and minored in theater. When a job in business didn’t open up fast enough after graduation from college, Rome traveled to Africa where he wrote his first play, and upon his return six months later he began teaching an acting class at Tompkins Park in Brooklyn, where he founded a amateur theater troupe called the Neal Ensemble Theater Workshop. Over the last thirty years Neal has played and directed plays in the off off Broadway black theater as well as interracial off Broadway companies like The Theater for The New City, and The Nuyorican Poets Café, where he is the artistic director for theater productions.  

The path that led Rome to the Monk role began when Phillip Hayes Dean, himself a fine playwright, asked him to read the Monk character in Holder’s play “Monk and Bud.” Monk, whose life he felt mirrored his own in some fundamental ways, fascinated Rome. It was while directing Holder’s plays at the Theater for the New City later on that Rome realized that he was also the author of the Monk and Bud..  “When I directed ‘Red Channels -’ a play about the effects of the anti-communist witch hunt conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy on politically active black intellectuals, artists, and political leaders – I developed a great admiration and respect for Lawrence as a playwright, especially his historical plays and critiques of contemporary life and society.”  And it was this admiration for Holders unique talent that led Rome to ask Holder to write a one-man play about Thelonius Monk.

 A Mighty Three!

Max Roach and Rome Neal

Holder, Legendary Percussionist/bandleader Max Roach and Rome


 “Laurence wrote the Monk play in less than a week,” Rome recalls. “When I read it I was amazed, I thought it was great! I said to myself: ‘Well Rome, you’ve got yourself a great one man show.  So now you’ve got to get to work.’  I threw myself into studying the role, and we honed and polished it to a fine finish by staging three readings at the Nuyorican.  The readings were a month apart and this gave us a chance to re-write the script based on what we were learning from audience feedback. When we felt the play was ready, Lawrence and I co-produced the play at the Nuyorican Theater” However, although the play was performed at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, “Monk” was staged under the auspices of the Holder/Neal Production Company. The play’s initial run was two months. 

 Since then the play has gone through several productions including an off Broadway production with a marvelous new score of Monk inspired music composed by his contemporary, bassist Bill Lee, the father of the brilliant screenwriter/director Spike Lee. When Monk opened at the Abbingdon Theater at 312 west 36th street, just off Broadway between Eight and Ninth Avenues, it was the first time an Afro-American Writer and actor had shepherded and independent production from the publicly funded off off Broadway theater, to the commercial off Broadway theater.

 This was an important development not only for Neal and Holder, but also the entire black theater movement.  Although this dynamic duo’s production might not make it to the Promised land of Broadway, the Mecca of American theater just a few blocks away, they might well be blazing a path that future black theater productions might travel. to Broadway, the Mecca of American theater Hence anyone who would like to invest in Neal and Holder’s production should check out their investment plan on Rome Neal’s website.  It is the view of this critic that an investment in this play is an investment in the future of black theater. Once it becomes clear that the off off Broadway black theater can develop plays for Broadway, the sky’s the limit for black thespians. 

 Monk has now returned to its original home, the world famous Nuyorican Poets Café for the holidays and will be running nightly from December 18, through January 11.  anyone planning a visit to New York City over the Yule Tide season and would like to take in an evening of great theater then check out the critically acclaimed production of Monk, and witness the magic that won Rome the coveted Audelco Award for Solo Performance by an actor.




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York 

December 19, 2008

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