Jass

This is “The Oyster Sashay” sung by Phyllis Somerville.

FRANCE: (singing) I’M DOIN THE OYSTER SASHAY                                                 WON’T SEE IT ANY OL’ DAY                                                                                             IT STARTS ON MY HEAD                                                                                              AND MOVES TO MY FEET                                                                                            AND WHERE IT TRAVELS IN BETWEEN’S A MIGHTY SPECIAL TREAT.                           IF YOU LIKE YOUR OYSTERS UNFRIED,                                                                      BET THERE’S ONE WAY YOU HAVEN’T TRIED –                                                        WHEN THEY LAND ON MY SOLE,                                                                              JUST SWALLOW ‘EM WHOLE                                                                                        OR DIP ‘EM IN THE BUTTER FROM MY BUTTER BOWL.                                               I’M DOIN THE OYSTER SASHAY,                                                                                    IT’S SUCH A REMARKABLE WAY                                                                                 FOR MAKIN THE OYSTER MOISTER AND MOISTER –                                                   DOIN THE OYSTER SASHAY!

Jass the Musical

(Joey throws the sponge at her. She climbs partway into the tub and they kiss. She notices his tattoo – a heart-shaped outline on the left side of his chest.)

What’s that tattoo you got?

JOEY: A heart on my heart.

FRANCE: Did it hurt?

JOEY: Like a thousand little knives sinkin into my skin.

FRANCE: I was thinkin of gettin a tattoo on my big toe. That way if I don’t like it I could cut it off or wear a sock or somethin. How come it’s empty? You need a name in the middle.

JOEY: Ain’t found the right woman.

FRANCE: You never been in love?

JOEY: Oh, I been in love plenty of times. But the woman I’m lookin for is the one who’s gonna break my heart.

FRANCE: Is that a dare?

JOEY: You bet. First woman to cause me pain gets her name written right in the middle. Plenty tried. None succeeded. Now come here.

FRANCE: Why?

JOEY: I wanna check out that oyster.

THE STORY:

In Storyville, New Orleans, 1917, on the eve of the red-light district’s closing, sailors are celebrating on their way to war, too many whores are falling in love, the music known as Jass is about to head north, and a serial killer known as the Ripper is about to strike again.

THE BACKSTORY:

I wrote the first draft of Jass in a writers’ group run by Israel Horowitz in 1980. I had fallen in love with Belloc’s extraordinary photos of early 20th century Storyville, the notorious section of New Orleans that was the center of legalized prostitution. (I was as much intrigued by the name “Storyville” as I was by the life that was led there.) Around this time, Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby was released, and I was appalled by the film’s failure to capture anything true of that extraordinary time and place. My answer to all this was Jass.

It was accepted by the O’Neill Playwrights’ Conference in 1985, my second play to be workshopped there. It created something of a stir – there was anger that a white writer would dare write something of the black experience. I’ve come to feel that a few of those feelings came because there were no African-American women in the play, which choice forced several of the relationships to be between black men and white women, a distorted picture of life at the time. I’ve since remedied that problem. But the darkness of the piece – the serial killer named the Ripper who lurks behind all the musical notes, biding his time until he strikes – cannot be helped. The joy of the music is the sheath that holds his killing knife.

The lyrics are all mine. In 2016, when I workshopped the play at The New Harmony Project, I partnered with the remarkable Stan Tucker, who wrote the music to some new songs and sharpened and rewrote the music that I had written way back in the early ’80’s. Stan also helped me re-think the metaphor of the entire show. The music is indeed a character in the play, as alive and seductive and longing for escape as any of the people. Everyone in this play and place wants out, even the notorious Mama V., who serves as both heroine and villain. Jerico too, the narrator of the play, is saint and Satan – I’ve always been intrigued by the thin line that can exist between good and evil, and tried to characterize that in these two acts. Jerico’s speeches are as musical as the songs – the entire play is meant to be a jazz symphony, with Jerico as conductor and composer who is unable to stand back and observe, but who is inevitably drawn in by the seductiveness of the stories he sings.

JERICO: The music, Mama, it’s all for the music. It’s for the music the Ripper come to this nice little illegality named Storyville. It’s for the music he let that bitch slip her syphilitic bugs inside start to percolate his brain. Everything he done he done for the music! It’s the music every time make him tingle and sing and gotta do, gotta do, lovin up a woman feelin that livin heart beat beneath his and I say Let it beat, man, cause that’s Life and that’s Dance and that’s the Music! The workin girls, they ask me, “Who you, Mister Ordinary, thinkin I want anything to do with you?” And I show em who I am. And they don’t forget. “Who you, Mister Ordinary?” you askin me right now. I’ll tell you one thing. I ain’t the storyteller. I’m the story. Mister Ordinary is settin the music free.