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Big-T & the Bada-Bings

Music of the Sphere
by Brian Scott Shuman

Thelonious MonkAn evening spent with the real Thelonious Sphere Monk would likely be much different than Rome Neal's scorching performance of the jazz master in Laurence Holder's one-character production, Monk, currently playing at the Nuyorican Poet's Café in New York City. By all accounts, Monk didn't talk much. He was said to be shambling, reticent, intimidating, and difficult. But Neal and Holder have collaborated to reveal the inner thoughts of this enigmatic pianist and composer, offering a well-rounded portrait of his complex and fiercely independent personality. For this, we should be grateful. 

Quite simply, some artists are household names and some are not. Talent needn't be a factor. You won't see Thelonious Monk on network television, in elementary school textbooks, or in Apple's "Think different" campaign Not enough folks would know the big black man with the funny hat, twirling around in circles. As the High Priest of Bebop, however, Monk's artistry reverberates throughout our culture, popping up in music, movies, and our everyday speech. He performed throughout the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s, inspiring generations of musicians. His genius is undeniable, his influence gargantuan, but the man never got his just due.

Neal's Monk is a bad motherfucker. He runs a full gamut of emotions, all magnified by his sensitivity as an artist. Phrases like, "No good. No good." "Stride, baby, stride!" and "Sit up straight. Sit up straight..." chase an often blue Monk through his nearly two-hour performance. Sometimes, Thelonious is so contradictorily human, it's like he embodies several different personalities. Assuming the viewer is unfamiliar with Monk, the award-winning playwright takes us on a bumpy ride through his childhood, adolescence, musical experiments, love life, jail time, depression, and death. Along the way, Monk himself introduces us to his mother, his wife Nellie, the Baroness Pannonica, and a host of musicians. The most fascinating among these is Monk's contemporary, the great Bud Powell. (In one highly entertaining swerve 'round the Sphere, Mr. Neal does Monk doing Bud doing Monk.) 

Powell, who never recovered mentally from a savage beating he took from a cop in Philadelphia as a teenager, is one of Monk's most significant demons in the play. Holder and Neal reveal the complexity of Monk's anger and resentment toward his colleague. Although Powell got Monk into deeper shit than anybody, Monk has more love and empathy for poor, talented, nutty Bud than he does for the myriad other characters who treat him so shabbily.  In Monk's eyes, Bud's own tortured artistry is simply too valuable to walk out on.

Monk is an embodiment of the composer's spirit and the ghosts within it. Holder's greatest achievement may be that he elucidates Monk's often misunderstood genius without spoiling the mystery of his unique character. The next time you tune into Thelonious scampering and bashing around the keys, you'll hear the soul rush right on through.

Monk runs through March 26, 2000, at the Nuyorican Poet's Café, 236 East 3rd Street, NYC.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat 7:30 p.m.; Sundays 3:00 p.m. Admission $15. For more information, call (212) 465-3167 or visit

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