ArtsEmerson’s ‘Mr. Joy’ Is Provocative and Heartbreaking (4.5 stars)

Mr. Joy – Written by Daniel Beaty. Directed by David Dower. Presented by ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box, 559 Washington Street, Boston through October 18. 

Mr. Joy is a Chinese immigrant who owns a shoe repair shop in Harlem. Despite the neighborhood’s initial feelings of suspicion towards him, Mr. Joy manages to earn himself a place of respect and familiarity, because he is a kind and caring person. At the curtain’s rise, the reliably punctual Mr. Joy is missing, his shop closed on a morning that he would usually be working. We learn this first through Clarissa, a young girl who has been taken under Mr. Joy’s wing as his assistant. Clarissa is played by Tangela Large, the multi-talented young woman who is the heart and sole performer of the piece. Large goes on to play eight more characters, each transition seamless and distinct, who together tell the story of the title character through their relationships with him.

There’s Bessie, Clarissa’s savvy 62-year old grandmother, an activist in her community despite the alarming stats – 27 gangs  in Harlem alone, as she informs us.  There’s DaShawn, a young black man – boy, really – who’s trying to avoid a life in the streets but somehow gets caught up in them anyway. John Lee, Mr. Joy’s son, is a real estate developer whose concern for his father is palpable and who works for Clifford, a black Republican. There’s Becky, Clifford’s white girlfriend, who is trying to have a baby with another man’s sperm. Ashes, Clifford’s transgender daughter, is a flight attendant longing to have a relationship with her father, who won’t speak to her. Rounding things out are Peter, Clarissa’s aspiring opera-singer boyfriend, and a homeless protest artist, who sees more than he lets on.

Beaty’s play is timely, and tackles many themes – racism, gang violence, discrimination, alienation, gentrification, family and its various iterations. Clarissa is being raised by Becky, having lost her mother to AIDS.  Becky is part of a group called Single Mothers by Choice.  DaShawn is drawn to the church because of the idea that there’s a heavenly Father looking out for him. Ashes, estranged from her own father, is in a relationship with a married man. The grounded Peter has a good relationship with his dad, as does John Lee.  Strong ties make for a healthy society, and this is reflected in the choices of Beaty’s multi-faceted characters.

Large is a terrifically engaging actor, and it is through her empathetic portrayal of each character that the audience really feels the impact of what’s happening in mixed communities today.  The play is beautifully constructed, its buildup to what really happens to Mr. Joy well paced, with its subsequent denouement. The characters are well drawn, with the exception of DaShawn, whose sudden transition from enthusiastic church goer to gang member seems forced and out of character, and Ashes, who while funny and engaging, seems a little too street for someone who was brought up in a wealthy, Republican family. But Mr. Joy is able to tackle, with pathos and humor, what is uncomfortable and shameful in  today’s society. For more info, go to: