Watching Eric Simonson’s “Carter’s Way” brought me back to when Clint Eastwood’s “Bird” was released some years ago. The Charlie Parker biopic was playing downtown and Bird’s longtime collaborator Dizzy Gillespie was playing in town and I tried to twist his arm to get him to see it. Gillespie was adamant that he wanted no part of it: “Either they got it wrong, and I’ll be mad as hell, or they got it right, and I’ll cry like a baby. Who needs either one at my age?” Eastwood’s “Bird” did what most jazz dramas do, concentrating on the drugs and the affairs, but virtually never the art. Happily, “Carter’s Way” is a notable exception and gives us some powerful insight into what drives a fictional Kansas City saxophone player (James Meredith Vincent) who has to do his art “his” way, without compromise. Sure, you could quibble about technicalities, including the fact that many of the jazz pix on the club wall were taken decades after the play was taking place (the mid 1930s) and that the original jazz used in the play is elevator bop, not the Kansas City style of the era, and the innovation that develops is tame, linear and melodic whereas Kansas City innovators extended music on all fronts, including rhythm and harmony. But no matter. What the play does capture magnificently well is how groundbreaking art comes about by refusing to compromise and that the artists who become innovators are often as unyielding in their personalities and personal lives as they are in their art, which often takes a high toll on those around them. What is also fascinating in an era where a white woman and a black man are vying for a presidential nomination is how those two marginalized and powerless groups come together in this work for solace, raising the question of which group was actually more marginalized than the other. After all, even decades later, women remain the marginalized within the marginalized. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, (312)335-1650. This production is now closed.