Playwright Nambi E. Kelley, at center, brings her adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Jazz” to the Marin Theatre Company, opening April 25.

In 2014, renowned Chicago playwright/actor Nambi E. Kelley adapted Richard Wright’s Native Son for Court Theatre and American Blues Theater in her hometown.

Kelley brought that adaptation to the Marin Theatre Company three years later, drawing rave reviews for her take on Wright’s intense, suffocatingly bleak tome about young African-American Bigger Thomas’ downward spiral, as the aspiring pilot is stifled at every turn by society’s deep-seated racism.

That adaptation spawned even more good fortune for both Kelley and MTC. According to American Theatre, after the success of Native Son, Dramatic Publishing approached Kelley about adapting another novel, though she wasn’t told the name of the writer or or the book. She submitted anyway, and found out weeks later that Toni Morrison wanted her to adapt Jazz, the second book in a trilogy about love and African-American history.

​That adaptation comes to the Marin Theatre Company this month, with the West Coast premiere of Kelley’s adaptation opening April 25 and running through May 19. It is directed by New York-based Awoye Timpo, featuring new musical compositions by SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director Marcus Shelby

Published in 1992, Jazz tells the story of a love triangle in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920 while also exploring the mid-19th-century American South pasts of the various characters. 

But while Jazz is a riveting story, its language, cadence and tone all deliberately pay tribute to the music from which its draws its title, from moments of bluesy, tender sensuality to punctuated, violent riffs of spontaneity. Characters move with musicality, and speak in rhythm, and at the heart of it all is Violet. Her husband’s affair with a beautiful young woman has set off a series of violent events and unforgivable acts, and Violet seeks out answers. As layered, dream-like perspectives unfold, Jazz exposes a host of deeply complex individuals, who–like the growing New York neighborhood and the ancestral, winding woods of Violet’s southern youth–reveal their own distinct rhythms.

Jazz is the second book in a trilogy from Morrison. It kicked off with 1987’s Beloved, which was inspired by the true story of an enslaved African-American woman, Margaret Garner who, facing a return to slavery, killed her two-year-old daughter but was captured before she could kill herself. Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel imagines the dead baby returning as a ghost, Beloved, to haunt her mother and family.

The third book of the Beloved trilogy, Paradise, tells the story of the citizens of an all-black town named Ruby where the men were hell-bent on destroying the so called “Convent,” a former embezzler’s mansion now inhabited by a group of women with troubled pasts. In 1993, just before Paradise came out, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

The 411: Chicago playwright/actor Nambi E. Kelley brings her adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Jazz to the Marin Theatre Company, with the West Coast premiere opening April 25 and running through May 19. MORE INFO & TIX.

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