By Daniel Skora
The man whose name appears as the title in the latest presentation at Theatre Nova is never seen on stage. But his presence in the play is everywhere, from the many pairs of shoes that line the sidewalk outside the front of his modest little business, to the people of the neighborhood who all seem to have a connection to him in one way or another. Mr. Joy is the owner of a shoe repair shop in Harlem. He is a kind and gentle man and has been known to repair a customer’s shoes even if they couldn’t pay. He is also Chinese, which makes him somewhat unique in this predominantly African-American neighborhood.
His name sounds like it might really be Choi, a common Asian surname, but Harlem is not exactly a place where the Queen’s English is spoken, and if you say Choi fast enough and often enough (Mr. Choi, Mr. Choi, Mr. Choi), it certainly ends up sounding like Mr. Joy. In any event, Joy is a truly appropriate name for a man who brings such good vibrations to a neighborhood even while tensions proliferate between Afro-Americans and Asian business owners.
Something is different this day in the neighborhood when the play begins. Clarissa, who hopes that someday her sketches for a line of sneakers will find their way to becoming real pairs of shoes, is the first to notice. Clarissa spends lots of time at Mr. Joy’s repair shop and considers herself to be his assistant. When she arrives, the doors are locked, and Mr. Joy, who is always the first one at the shop, is not there. What has happened to the kindly shoe repairman and how his absence has affected the many in the neighborhood that knew him and counted on his presence, forms the basis for playwright Daniel Beaty’s well-crafted and deeply moving story.
Beaty combines an intricately structured one-man script with stories about life on the streets that could have been lifted from the newspapers of any big city in the country. There are nine characters in the play, all played by Matthew Webb, and “Mr. Joy” is as much about his terrific one-man performance as it is about the social issues and character studies the play contains. Webb plays a variety of characters, young and old, male and female, black and white. With alterations to his voice and changes in his body posture, (not to mention the occasional switching of pairs of shoes), Webb is able to clearly delineate a variety of differing characters.
This reviewer was unable to see “Mr. Joy” until its final weekend so the production will have already closed by the time you read this. If you didn’t get to see the show, you missed an emotionally provocative show that was timely, relevant, and performed by an actor accomplished beyond his years. The good news is that Theatre Nova has had two seasons of putting on great plays marked by equally great performances, and their third season is just around the corner. All of their one-man shows have been especially noteworthy, and “Mr. Joy” and Matthew Webb’s performance ranks with them as being among some of the most scintillating theatre to be found in these parts. If you haven’t yet made your way over to the intimate, rustic surroundings of the Yellow Barn where Theatre Nova shows are performed, click here to see it’sAllTheatre’s reviews of their previous offerings or go to their website at www.TheatreNova.org for more information.
“Mr. Joy” was directed by Billicia Hines with assistance from Kat Walsh. Lighting is by Daniel C. Walker, set design by Kelsey Nowak, and costumes and sound by Carla Milarch.