The opening night of Jimmy & Lorraine: A Musing presented by Pillsbury House Theatre was met with a largely standing, and universally enthusiastic, ovation from one of the most diverse theatre audiences I’ve seen in my Twin Cities theatre attendance. The packed house enjoyed a journey of friendship and politics from the perspectives of author James Baldwin (Jon-Michael Reese) and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (Vinecia Coleman). These two icons of the page and stage fight to find the Artist’s role as Activist in segregation era America in Talvin Wilks’s script, directed by Brian Jennings. 

Set between the years 1957 and 1965 Jimmy & Lorraine weaves together both a tale of political uprising and a delicate story of love and companionship. Jon-Michael Reese and Vinecia Coleman – both newcomers to Pillsbury House Theatre – are a dynamic duo displaying a palpable bond. Wilks’s script is artfully crafted from primary texts by Baldwin and Hansberry; program notes from the playwright detail that texts from biographies, journals, plays, interviews, novels, and letters were used. The actors handle the language with power and poise; Reese’s vocal portrayal of Baldwin transports the audience to time and space through his speech, cadence, and dialect. The third strand in the cord of this production is Sasha Andreev (in his own Pillsbury House debut) who plays a myriad of roles, each distinct, over the course of the production. Andreev embodies Giovanni from Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s lover Lucien Happersberger, Hansberry’s husband Robert Nemiroff, Baldwin’s controversial contemporary Norman Mailer, and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. With deftness and subtlety Andreev, Reese, and Coleman craft a narrative on the power of the written word to affect social change.

The largely monochromatic production design embraces simplicity. Kellie Larson’s prop design nods to the historical era without getting mired in details and set dressing. Leazah Behrens’s set works cohesively with Bill Cottman’s projections; the stage’s back wall comprises variously sized panels used as projection screens and as hidden compartments for easily accessible set pieces. Our hosts, Jimmy and Lorraine, guide us through their own stores, so the actors set the stage for each scene, manipulating the set to change time and location. Cottman’s chosen media projections provide striking glimpses into the civil rights era. The depth, design, and focus of these interwoven images brings context to the struggles these artists faced. Michael Wangen’s lighting design and Katharine Horowitz’s sound enhance and elevate moments of tension and combine to create a solid mid-show dance party. Costumes by Trevor Bowen echo the period's black and white notions of race; the majority of pieces are shades of grey with the occasional pop of color in a tie or scarf.  Bowen’s choices harken to themes of Baldwin’s I am Not Your Negro, explicitly explored in the dialogue: “…the difference between black and white is the ability to own it.”

Jimmy & Lorraine: A Musing feels both like  a history lesson and a late-night conversation with friends – a testament to the tangibility of the honest relationship between the two individuals on stage and a sobering reminder of civil rights issues of the ‘50s and ‘60s that remain in large part unresolved. I felt privileged to be in the room for this play, to be among an audience community that was thrilled to have this story told, and to learn from this production team. Pillsbury House Theatre has taken this opportunity to reestablish a conversation about arts and activism that we as a creative community should never stop having. Jimmy & Lorraine: A Musing runs through October 20th. Post-show talkbacks with local artists, activists, and scholars sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society are scheduled for Sept 26 and Oct. 3, 10, and 17.