It's impossible to appreciate the liberating exhilaration of jazz without also acknowledging the dire circumstances that spawned it. That inextricable link is laid bare in "Central Avenue," Stephen Sachs' hard-hitting new play about L.A.'s creatively fertile black music scene of the 1940s and the racist oppression and poverty that enveloped its pioneers.
"Mississippi with palm trees" is the terse assessment of the City of Angels from horn player Sam Washington (Jeris Lee Poindexter) after a random and all-too-typical opening episode of police harassment (courtesy of Ryan Michaels) throws him together with Eddie (Chet Grissom), a naive white wannabe jazz player from Glendale.
Their resulting uneasy mentorship reflects in microcosm the vast, depressingly unchanging gulf of misunderstandings between blacks and whites. Yet their story is also one of compelling personal drama, skillfully performed with nuanced detail. As Eddie's indefatigable persistence wears down Sam's suspicions, their hard-won common ground is beautiful in its emotional honesty and heartbreaking in its partiality.
Other finely drawn inhabitants of the Central Avenue scene include a sultry club singer (Maura Gale), a fast-talking street hustler (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) and a fiercely articulate sideman (Anthony Haney)--a self-described "fireball of rage" who eloquently prophesies the turbulence that would spring from the seeds planted in that era.
Their stories are set against a broader historical backdrop involving two pivotal developments with long-term consequences. The first is the fight for control of the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department between reform-minded Chief William Worton (William Knight) and the baleful William Parker (Clayton Landey), his eventual successor. In multiple roles, Darryl Alan Reed and Stephen Marshall supply the seriocomic cameo snapshots of historical personalities Rocky Williams, Tom Bradley, Daryl Gates and Jack Webb.
The second historical subplot touches on the efforts of spokesman Doc Peterson (Damu Quarles) to negotiate a united, colorblind musicians union, and all the tactical compromises involved.
There's a regrettable tendency for the LAPD subplot to lapse into one-sided caricature, but the compelling performances in the core story restore the humanity.
The real show-stealer, however, is the music itself. A riveting score features newly recorded versions of classic jazz numbers, many accompanied by Gale's superb live vocals. The spirit of white-hot jazz infuses not only the score, but also ingeniously lends musical shape to Sachs' dialogue and narrative structure. Consummately interweaving these disparate elements, Shirley Jo Finney's staging is a magnificent riff on a painful but ultimately transcendent facet of L.A.'s cultural heritage.
* "Central Avenue," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends July 15. $22. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.