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A CurtainUp Review
The Conjure Man Dies

A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem

Cover of the book
that inspired the play

Had he not died at age 37 of cancer, Rudolph Fisher might have become as well-known a member of the Harlem Renaissance as writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The body of work he left behind was limited not only by his early death, but because literature was his mistress and the practice of medicine his wife.

The last decade's renewed interest in all the writers of the Harlem Renaissance has brought renewed interest in Fisher's oeuvre. Most of his work is currently available in print and there's a Rudolph Fisher newsletter for fans and scholars.

The Conjure Man Dies, one of the two novels Fisher left behind, stars a Sherlock Holmes style analytical sleuth who, like Holmes' friend Watson, is a doctor. Besides being the first detective novel by an African-American it was also the first to featture multiple detective. It has consequently become a become doubly interesting, ground-breaking literary artifact. Actor-producer Morgan Freeman optioned it as a film. Scholar Adrienne Gosselin published a lengthy paper about it entitled "The Psychology of Uncertainty: )Inscribing Indeterminacy in Rudolph Fisher's The Conjure-Man Dies." And currently there's a limited run, large cast revival of the play adaptation of the novel at Woody Kings Junior's New Federal Theater on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

The play adaptation of the novel had its first stage outing in 1936, under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project in Harlem. Though I 've not read the novel I suspect, that it was more successful in capturing the flavor of 1930s Harlem and holds up better than the rather static and more talk than action drama. Fisher's linking of Western science and African spirituality probably works better on the page than the stage where it tends to slow down what should be an exciting thriller about the discovery and disappearance of a corpse from the mysterious Frimbo's digs above an undertaking parlor.

The cast, period perfect in Evelyn Nelson's costumes, ranges from outstanding to passable. Eric McLendon, while not a particularly pedantic Dr. Archer (per Fisher's take on the character) interacts well with Perry Dart (well-acted by Curtis McClarin) and the supposedly dead Frimbo (Everton Lawrence). However, Bubber Brown (Rafeal Clements) who delights in his sudden designation as a private eye is the most entertaining and memorable of the sleuthing quartet. Bubber best illustrates Fisher's ear for the local vernacular and humor ("Smart guy that Frimbo," Bubber observes "Y'know, I wouldn't mind bein' kind o' crazy if it made me that smart." ). His interaction with his falsely accused sidekick, Jinx Jenkins (Esau Pritchett), make for some welcome Frick and Frack comic relief with Jinx the constant foil of Bubber's putdowns (e.g.: "Brains to you just means something special for breakfast").

Of the women in the cast, Christine Campbell does an effective dual role turn as a Harlem landlady and entertainer. Cat Jagar, as the undertaker's wife and a cocktail waitress, looks a lot better than she acts.

At 2 hours with two ten minute intermissions, The Conjure Man Dies is too long by at least half an hour and one intermission. And when all is said and done, it might have been a better idea to create an original new play about its author, than to try to conjure up new life for this long buried play.

A paperback copy of the novel which inspired this play is available at our book store: The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem

by Rudolph Fisher
Directed by Clinton Turner Davis
Cast: Peggy Alston, Christine Campbell, Everton Lawrence, Justice Pratt, Esau Pritchett, Marcuis Harris, Cat Jagar, Eric McLendon, Curtis McClarin, Edward Washington, Tee. C. Williams
Set Design: Kent Hoffman
Lighting Design: Shirley Prendergast
Costume Design: Evelyn Nelson
Running Time: 2 and 1/2 hours, with two 10-minute intermissions
New Federal Theatere/Henry Street Settlement, 466 Grand St. (F train to Delancey St.), 353-1176 or 279-4200 or
1/11/01-2/11/01; opening 1 1/14/01-- Wed, Thurs, Fri 7:30 pm;Sat 3pm and 8pm, Sun 3pm.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/20 performance

2001 CD-ROM Deluxe

The Broadway Theatre Archive

©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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