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Jordans

Ife Olujobi’s world premiere play at The Public Theater covers institutional racism in the workplace, gender, power, class, and pop, ghetto and Black culture.

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Naomi Lorrain and Tony Onwumere in a scene from Ife Olujobi’s “Jordans” at The Public Theater (Photo credit:  Joan Marcus)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

Ife Olujobi’s Jordans, having its world premiere at The Public Theater, is a high concept satire: an all-white workplace (except for the harried Black receptionist and “girl of all works”) decides to hire another Black employee to help with diversity and the perception that they are with it and ready to take on a demographic that they have been missing. Ironically, both the female receptionist and new male employee hired to be “Director of Culture” have the name of Jordan but none of the other white co-workers can tell them apart, neither the racist, entitled and aggressive female boss Hailey or the rest of the staff. There is much parody with the two Black employees obviously mixed up (he is asked to get coffee, she can’t find the email obviously intended for him, etc.) However, the receptionist sees the new Director as a threat to her existence as he won’t “play the game” rather than someone to team up with, and sets out to take him down.

This premise allows the play to cover institutional racism in the workplace, gender, power, class, and pop, ghetto and Black culture. This may be a few too many topics to cover in one play. However, the mordant satire of the first act turns into a very dark revenge play in the second act and becomes a little bit difficult to sit through. The direction by Whitney White (currently Tony nominated for Jocelyn Bioh’s Jada’s African Hair Braiding on Broadway, and Lynn Nottage’s The Secret Lives of Bees in London) is efficient and economical but it keeps the jokes from being very funny. The staff is made up of monstrously racist and bigoted characters who are hard to identify with but they are too benighted to be comic.

Toby Onwumere (far left) and the company of Ife Olujobi’s “Jordans” at The Public Theater (Photo credit:  Joan Marcus)

In fact, the play which ought to be hilarious is almost devoid of jokes as the premise which is politically incorrect will make many white playgoers uncomfortable – unless this is the point of the play. As the setting is an event space/rental studio/production facility, we see a trendy photo shoot of a high fashion model, a taping of a motivational speaker, and a business meeting to plan a new advertising campaign for a rapper’s new product line, a pop star whose street cred is that he is on trial for aggravated assault and has been to jail a few times for drugs and theft. All of this is pushed to the limit which undercuts its humorous possibilities. Of course, there are the obvious jokes about basketball Michael Jordan and wearing Jordan jeans.

The cast is excellent at what they are asked to do. As the put-upon receptionist treated like a servant by staff that does not even bother to learn her name, Naomi Lorrain is capable, competent and decisive, rolling with punches in this toxic environment until her new colleague pushes her over the edge. As 1. Jordan (as he is called in the script and program, actually named Jordan Savage), Toby Onwumere is suave and sophisticated, an upper class Black man who has climbed up the corporate system and almost made it in corporate white America. He is most amusing when trying to doubletalk the boss who has never been confronted with someone like him before. As the boss and CEO Hailey, Kate Walsh is monstrous as someone who treads all over others and is totally unaware of her racism and entitlement. We are not meant to like her and she has no redeeming qualities.

Kate Walsh and Naomi Lorrain in a scene from Ife Olujobi’s “Jordans” at The Public Theater (Photo credit:  Joan Marcus)

The office staff whose jobs are not clearly defined all play more than one character and are more memorable in these secondary roles. Aside from playing Tyler, Matthew Russell is amusing as the motivational speaker Kyle Price talking a string of mumbo jumbo coupled with obvious common sense. Subbing for Brian Muller (Fletcher), Quinn M. Johnson almost steals the show as the white pop star Lil Klonopin who can’t even stand to listen to his own bestselling music. Brontë England-Nelson (also the Model) and Meg Steedle (also the Pop Singer) get much mileage out of complaining about how harried they are while Lorrain’s Jordan does all the work.

Matt Saunders’ all white and beige setting is initially amusing but eventually the joke wears thin as the play works towards its climax in the 12th scene. The costumes by Qween Jean are spot on with bland, monochromatic clothing for the staff, colorful costumes for the visitors and clients, and eventually black and white outfits for the two Jordans. Cha See’s lighting is allowed to surprise during the photo shoots with brightly colored effects (red/ blue/pink). The sound design and original composition by Fan Zhang periodically takes us unaware. The startling special effects are by Lillis Meeh while the ultimately shocking fight direction is by UnkleDave’s Fight-House.

Meg Steedle, Naomi Lorrain, Brian Muller and Matthew Russell in a scene from Ife Olujobi’s “Jordans” at The Public Theater (Photo credit:  Joan Marcus)

Ife Olujobi’s Jordans is an interesting attempt at a satire on institutional racism in America as well as contemporary consumerism and materialism. Unfortunately, as a comedy the play falls flat and as a parody it is all too real. Ultimately, its message is not clear. Is it suggesting that Black people from different social strata are working at cross purposes rather than together or that white America just wants to appropriate from Black culture what is chic and will sell in the marketplace? The Grand Guignol ending is not really prepared for nor does it solve the problems set up in the story. The cast does excellent work but they have been let down by the playwright and director whose flat tone does not bring out the best in the material.

Jordans (through May 19, 2024)

The Public Theater

LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org

Running time:  two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission

 

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (990 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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