Despite stealing, lying, cheating, coveting, and potentially worse failings, the two characters at the center of 5 show a lot of promise.
That might make Jay and Evan sound like monsters. But they’re just young convenience store owners: Jay (played by JuCoby Johnson, who also wrote this play) is a young Black man who is afraid of change but taking baby steps by trying to eat better, Evan (Eric Hagen) is a young white Irish guy who can’t wait for change and is taking night classes to hurry it along.
The monsters in 5, which is co-produced by Trademark Theater and making its world premiere at the Jungle Theater, only show themselves as the night progresses, both in metaphorical and physical form. I’m talking flickering lights, strange occurrences, a neon green glow seemingly from another world; I won’t spoil the apocalyptic surprises awaiting you behind every bag of Cheetos and can of Code Red Mountain Dew in Big Jay’s Corner Store, but I will tell you this: at one point, I literally jumped out of my seat. Just ask the people sitting behind me.
If you’re tired of cliche jump scares spit out by streaming giants on your TV, head to the Jungle Theater before this show ends on April 16. Johnson and director H. Adam Harris, along with support from a best-in-class technical team who have done meticulous work to make this world seem out of control, have taken a friendship and a humble convenience store and turned it into an edge-of-your-seat roller coaster whose track is aimed at the biblical mountaintop.
You’ll get the biblical references immediately, as the show starts with a preacher wearing a golden crown delivering a sermon of fire and brimstone. Oh, sorry, actually that’s just Walter (Aaron Todd Douglas), a medicated man of faith who may be shooed away for loitering at other shops, but has become a friend of Jay and Evan, shooting the shit in the corner store when he’s not at his local church. He’s one of the side characters who make up the five in 5. The others are June (Isabella Dawis), who recently broke up with Jay after discovering nude photos from another woman on his phone; and then there’s Stacy (Dana Lee Thompson), the emissary of a real estate development company, who wants to buy out Jay and Evan.
That is the surface-level plot of this story: Jay and Evan, whose fathers owned Big Jay’s Corner Store, are trying to carry on their family legacy in the face of gentrification. Yet Johnson has many more levels he wants to explore, not simply the end-of-the-world doom that’s diffused through news on the radio of earthquakes and unexplainable happenings in the store like said radio fritzing out and blaring high-pitch shrieks, but also issues of race, discrimination, even sexual abuse. And the stakes get even bigger than that, if you can believe it, with the climactic scene channeling the theological ambition of Angels in America.
For the apocalypse to arrive, Walter explains to Jay, there are certain rungs that need to be climbed first: famine, drought, natural disasters, pestilence, and the like. Similarly, for apocalyptic endings to work on stage, they need to be earned. In the first act of 5, we’re chugging along to the mountaintop through incisive writing from Johnson that shows Jay and Evan’s complicated relationship, forced on them by their fathers, but also cultivated in their own unique ways. In the second act, though, the track gets split off in a dozen different directions, and instead of seeing the story of these five characters come to a thrilling, heart-racing, satisfying end, the audience is left careening off into the abyss.
“Five sounds better to me,” Jay says at one point, countering Walter who is talking about the biblical conception of the number seven. This seems to be a nod from Johnson the writer to his belief that the five characters of Jay, Evan, June, Stacy, and Walter are all equals in this story, a belief written out into backstories and interpersonal tensions of them all. The problem is that they’re not all equal players. By placing the action entirely in Big Jay’s, with a photo of Jay and Evan’s fathers on the front counter, we’re implicitly told that Jay and Evan are the central characters, but their compelling relationship is diluted by focusing too much on the others. Dana Lee Thompson and Aaron Todd Douglas bring the most realistic performances to this production, but the story would be better served by their respective characters of Stacy and Walter being catalysts, not centerpieces.
The direction of H. Adam Harris, the scenic design of Chelsea M. Warren, the sound design of Dan Dukich, the lighting design of Bill Healey and the dynamic fight consultation of Annie Enneking have taken the promise of Johnson’s text and elevated it into a night of seat-jumping, conversation-starting theater.
But the show ends with the characters looking out the window of the corner store onto a changed world, and we can’t see what they see. The apocalypse, and the promise of this show, have yet to be fully realized.
(Co-Produced With Trademark Theater)
2951 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408
Playing March 11 – April 16, 2023
Learn more here