An encounter with Smith Warehouse through the black mask of a rain-soaked night certainly evokes intrigue and suspense. Located along a hidden alleyway of Durham (but owned by Duke University), the cold brick building is surrounded by a stiff metal gate and leaves visitors wandering its lengthy perimeter in isolation. It doesn't seem implausible that this old tobacco warehouse is home to many ghosts, and this week, it will be host to the spirits of modern jazz in a meta-theatrical project called Misterioso.
Nothing if not ambitious, Misterioso is a music and theater extravaganza being presented as part of Duke Performances' Following Monk series, a six-week program of events dedicated to Thelonious Monk, the great jazz pianist and composer who was born in 1917 in Rocky Mount, N.C. Misterioso will incorporate a well-stocked bar, live musical performances and the free-form movement of actors in its effort to embody the nature of the 1960s jazz loft it is recreating. Written by Duke professor John Clum and others, and directed by Jay O'Berski, the production will run through Sunday, Sept. 30.
I'm here to visit a rehearsal, and I find O'Berski standing in a brightly lit room located on the upper west corner of the warehouse, along with three actresses. The wide storage room, known as "The Space," is spotted with furniture: a disheveled bed in one corner, a wooden piano propped against a bare brick wall, a couch encompassed only by frames of walls, a fishing wire with black and white photos clipped to it like wet clothes.
Right now, as O'Berski stands in the center of The Space waving urgently to his cast, it's easy to read his passion for the project. "Move around, act crazy," he yells to two young women dancing the tango. "Stretch out your legs, do a Cabaret pose!"
The set is the recreation of photographer W. Eugene Smith's Manhattan jazz loft—a place that housed various hipsters, from musicians to models to artists—during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Monk was a frequent visitor, jamming through the wee hours with the likes of Chick Corea, Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk and Roy Haynes.
Smith photographed these sessions, but he also recorded the conversations and music playing in his loft apartment near Manhattan's wholesale flower district on reel-to-reel tape. Some recordings were done in the public eye, but other recordings were conducted in secret. Altogether, Smith collected more than 3,000 hours of recordings and 40,000 photographs from 1957-1965, tiny capsules of memories that record the spirit and energy of young, eager artists unified by creativity.
According to Sam Stephenson, project director with the Jazz Loft Project, a program organized by Duke's Center for Documentary Studies in cooperation with the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography that is dedicated to preserving and cataloging Smith's tapes and photos, some of the apartment's inhabitants were unaware that they were being recorded. "You can look at some of Smith's photos and see microphones sitting out in the open. But other microphones were placed around the apartment in less obvious places," he says. "In some of the recordings, it's very obvious that the people speaking had no idea they were being taped."
When Clum, the chair of Duke's theater studies department, suggested performing a Jazz Loft theatre piece for Duke's Monk tribute, Smith was quick to jump on board. Smith doled out copies of photos, films and videos about the period as well as theme ideas taken directly from conversations held in the loft to inspire Clum and help him to create a "jazz play" of sorts.
Clum then called upon O'Berski, a lecturer in his department, to direct the play. O'Berski is noted for the freewheeling productions he directs with Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and other companies, and indeed, Clum's script seems entirely suited to his style. O'Berski had success with this open theatrical concept with Little Green Pig's 2005 production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days—a show that also included the enactment of several Beckett shorts as sideshow attractions—and wants to recreate this environment in the jazz loft.
Instead of referring to the production as a play or even as a piece of theatre, O'Berski and Clum have called the work a multimedia extravaganza—with film, photos, music and live actors recreating the environment of Smith's jazz loft. Still, this won't be an entirely romantic take on the events occurring within the Manhattan apartment. "I don't want people to be disillusioned by this romanticized beatnik idea of the loft," says Stephenson. "People in the loft were living out their dreams and often dying for them, too. People often drank and got doped up because it was an addiction for them. This was their life and it wasn't always a party."
The scene rehearsal I'm watching now caters to this idea. The actresses, portraying a pair of lesbian fashion models, are dancing a tango in the center of the warehouse floor. "I know you like vanilla, baby," shouts one girl to her lover. "I like real vanilla, not the fake kind," replies the woman with a sneer. Eventually this tense wordplay will culminate in a heated argument where the women fail to communicate with one another and end up writhing on the disheveled bed in a love scene.
This scene, inspired by Smith's recordings and photos, is representative of the heady emotional dramas that will play out during the evening. With so much going on, it might seem hard to choose which group of actors to follow with material this ripe and raw, but that's the way O'Berski designed his production.
"I wanted the play to have the feeling of a 'choose-your-own adventure' book. So that one could walk in and watch one scenario play out and turn around and immediately be immersed in a different scene with different characters," says O'Berski. "People like to be able to choose what they want to see and have the freedom to walk away. That kind of theatrical design brings novelty to the production and a live-wire energy the audience can't resist."
Misterioso runs Sept. 26-Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit dukeperformances.duke.edu/programs/monk/misterioso.php.