UNLIKE Nat "King" Cole and the like, "King" Buddy Bolden is not a well known figure nor is his life well documented. But he was one of the first great jazz trumpet players and Coming through Slaughter attempts to explain and understand his life through a cultural portrait of turn-of-the-century New Orleans. Because of the paucity of facts--only one known portrait of Bolden exists--the poem-play employs a combination of fantasy, music and hallucination in place of more traditional devices like plot and dialogue.
This innovative method can be beautiful and intriguing, but the writer has used it at the expense of making a coherent, cohesive drama. What plot there is becomes hopelessly confused, as several separate strands of narration tangle themselves into terrible knots.
Coming through Slaughter thwarts convention every step of the way. Jazz in every style and mood drones continually in the background, and during rare moments of silence the actors speak and walk in rhythmical jazzy patterns. Bolden himself appears on center stage pushing the stops of his brassy trumpet. Conversations take the form of poetry rather than prose.
Enhancing the ethereal quality of the performance are dancers who appear as silhouettes behind a white sheet. These act out the story told by the actors. The sparse set, entirely in black and white, effectively contrasts to the richness and decadence of New Orleans in the early 1900's.
To offset the play's some what tenuous grip of reality, aged photos are intermittently flashed against the set. Sometimes the pictures help us relate to the stylized movements on stage by giving us a sense of context, but at other times these just complicate an already nebulous plot. For example, Bolden and a fictional photographer named Bellocq make a pact in which the musician supplies his friend with nude women for subjects. Besides the questionable relation of the episode to the plot, the constant flashing of nudes borders on the offensive and pornographic.
YET in the end, the more the plot is subordinated to poetry, the more Coming through Slaughter makes sense. In the middle of a brawl in the barbershop, Bolden, his chest bleeding, begins mumbling a monologue: "I'm dead...you're crazy, the painful ache... the rain into my head..." he moans.
Similarly when Nora, his wife, talks about him, she speaks in metaphors more lyric than conversational. As they kiss passionately she cries "all my body moves to my throat with him."
Out of the play's initial chaos emerges one important theme: the importance and danger of success. Webb tells the audience as he drags a burnt-out Bolden home to Nora for the last time, "You don't think about stopping. That's when you're going down."