“5 Mojo Secrets” at The Vineyard Playhouse

The story of Anabelle (Suzzanne Douglas) and Lawrence Voorhees's (John Douglas Thompson) marriage – and divorce – is unfolded through a combination of individual narrative and flashbacks.
Photo courtesy of The Vineyard Playhouse

The story of Anabelle (Suzzanne Douglas) and Lawrence Voorhees's (John Douglas Thompson) marriage – and divorce – is unfolded through a combination of individual narrative and flashbacks.

One wouldn’t expect a drama about divorce to be a feel-good story, but playwright Kathleen McGhee-Anderson has managed to pull off that feat with “5 Mojo Secrets,” the final entry in The Vineyard Playhouse’s Festival of African-American Music and Theater.

Audience members at last Saturday’s performance left the show beaming, although a number of them confessed to the playwright that they had shed tears during the bittersweet performance.

The material touches ground familiar to many — how diverging life outlooks can drive a wedge between husband and wife. What makes the play uplifting is that it is also a celebration of one couple’s ability to gain the acceptance that a failed marriage is not a personal failure.

The story of Anabelle and Lawrence Voorhees’s marriage — and divorce — is unfolded through a combination of individual narrative and flashbacks. It’s not so much a case of his story versus her story as a retelling of their story and how their differences shaped their marriage and helped each grow individually before ultimately rending the relationship. It’s also very much the story of how each partner copes with the dissolution of their marriage by tapping their inner strength and how, despite the break, their affection and respect for each other, as well as the core of their love, has survived.

The action is enhanced by occasional musical accompaniment. Eric Johnson on the stand-up bass underscores some of the drama with brief jazzy interludes and recorded music sets the tone for some flashback scenes. The multipurpose set is decorated with draped fabric and a few simple props while images projected on a screen, including artwork by Harlem Renaissance painter Lois Maillou-Jones, add a magical element and help make the transitions between scenes. A short video piece by Anne Lemenager is used very effectively in the play’s conclusion.

Two stellar actors bring the production to life and their skills help to overcome the obstacle of performing monologue without artificiality. Instead, the effect is one of being a confidante on intimate terms with the two very likeable characters. Ms. McGhee-Anderson explores her characters’ inner worlds with a style that’s full of poetry, insight, and just enough humor to keep her characters down to earth. The playwright’s lyricism shines often, especially when her characters grapple with the elusive nature of love.

Anabelle uses the words of Zora Neale Hurston when she says, “Love doesn’t kill. It just makes a black woman sweat.” Later on Lawrence observes, “Men fall in love in the spaces. Women fall in love when they’re in your arms.” However, despite some touching scenes of a young couple’s courtship and early marriage, the characters are truly at their best when reconciling with the loss of romantic love. Though appearing tough on the outside, Anabelle eventually starts to lose her grip until she is rescued by a friend and a women’s support group, which she describes as performing a metaphorical bloodletting. She says, “The courage of women is what brought me back. I knew that.”

Anabelle and Lawrence have very different outlooks on life, which is made obvious early on during a glimpse of their initial meeting. Anabelle is an optimistic, free spirit who believes strongly in being true to oneself. Larry is a driven professional, determined to transcend racial stereotypes — to prove himself at whatever cost to his family and his own peace of mind. While Anabelle wants to continue her study of literature, Larry’s vision of the perfect nuclear family and respectability in the community is at odds with his wife’s more adventurous spirit and so their tenuous hold on their relationship eventually breaks, although the love and physical attraction that initially brought them together survives.

John Douglas Thompson, who plays Lawrence, is a veteran stage actor, who in the past decade has solidified a reputation as a world-class classical actor. He received critical praise for two of his most recent New York performances as Othello (for which he won an OBIE award) and the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.” The New York Times called Mr. Thompson, “One of the most compelling classical stage actors of his generation.” From the Vineyard, Mr. Thompson will head back to New York City to perform in “King Lear” with Sam Waterston at the Public Theater.

After Saturday’s performance, Mr. Thompson noted that he began his career doing contemporary drama and he has recently returned to those roots. “For the last few years I’ve been focusing on the classics but before that I did a truckload of contemporary plays,” he said. He uses an apt metaphor to describe his transition back into new theater works. “If you can drive in New York, you can drive anywhere. If you can do classical theater, you can do anything.”

And Mr. Thompson’s performance in “5 Mojo Secrets” certainly bears that out. He brings a level of complexity to a character that could easily have been reduced to that of the workaholic, self-absorbed husband indifferent to his family’s emotional needs — the foil to Anabelle’s introspective, highly emotional character.

Suzzanne Douglas, who plays Anabelle, is perhaps best known for her work in TV and film. She has starred in several motion pictures including “Tap,” “How Stella Got her Groove Back,” and “The Inkwell,” and starred as Robert Townsend’s wife in the Nineties sitcom “The Parent ‘Hood.” Ms. Douglas is equally accomplished as a stage actress. Among numerous roles, she appeared on Broadway in “The Threepenny Opera” with Sting and had the honor of being the first black actress to play Dr. Bearing in “Wit.”

Ms. Douglas proves her confidence as a stage actress in “5 Mojo Secrets” where she is called upon to run the gamut from idealistic young woman to alienated divorcee while masterfully delivering some of the most musical monologues in the play.

Director Ricardo Khan, the artistic director of the Tony Award winning Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, N.J., returns to The Playhouse after two successful runs (2009 and 2010) of his play “FLY.” He displays a deft hand at handling highly confessional material without the feeling of contrivance.

Ms. McGhee-Anderson has written a number of plays, beginning in her years as a film student at Columbia University. Her play “Oak and Ivy,” which was performed at The Playhouse in 2001, was twice chosen for production by the Eugene O’Neill Theater and her play “Venice” was produced at Lincoln Center. “I’ve supported myself by working in the TV and film industry but writing plays is my passion,” she says. “I try to split my focus between making a living and working in the theater.”

She also writes poetry and much of her work as a playwright is marked by a love of language and rhythm. She says, “I consider myself a poet first, everything else after that.” She chose to use the device of soliloquy to tell the story of “5 Mojo Secrets” in order to tap the inner life of her characters in a situation that she felt needed more exploration.

“It was a subject that I felt hadn’t been looked at as deeply as I would have liked. It was exciting to me to talk about divorce, about the evolution of a relationship through good times and bad times. The outcome doesn’t have to be onerous or negative. Our culture tends to think of the failure of marriage as a defeat. There is a great deal of loss but at the same time there is a lot of growth and learning if you embrace the challenge.”

The play itself is undergoing an evolution. Ms. McGhee notes that she further developed the character of Lawrence to take advantage of the talents of Mr. Thompson. She says, “Once I found out that he had accepted the role of Lawrence, I made the time to develop the character more, to refine the soliloquy. I felt he deserved to have the work more refined.”

Watching her two talented actors immerse themselves in their roles has also inspired Ms. McGhee-Anderson to expand on her story more and, perhaps reinvent it as a screenplay. She says, “Suzzanne Douglas and John Douglas Thompson make me feel the love. I feel it now. Seeing these two has made me realize how much love that couple has for each other. I’m a great believer in art evolving. I tinker with my work forever.”

For those in the audience who were left hanging, a few of whom on Saturday had questions about the future of Lawrence and Anabelle, Ms. McGhee-Anderson promises, “It’s not done yet.”

“5 Mojo Secrets,” 8 pm, Thurs.–Sat., Sept. 1–3, The Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. $35. 508-696-6300; boxoffice@vineyardplayhouse.org.