Paige Mayes as Awilda and Dane Troy as Acts in the Oakland Theater Project’s production of The Mojo and the Sayso by Aishah Rahman. Credit: David Flores II

“The right mojo will give you the sayso. Put you in the driver’s seat. The right mojo will take you over those moments of terror, doubt or even surprise.”

The Oakland Theater Project’s Bay Area premiere of the heartrending and moving The Mojo and the Sayso was written by Aisha Rahman in 1989. The author based this evocative play on the 1973 shooting death of a 10-year-old Black boy by New York City police. Sadly, the drama is as timely and tragic as if just written — and even more significant, given the sheer number of similar children’s deaths since then.

The Mojo and the Sayso, Oakland Theater Project, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland, through June 26

The one-act, 75-minute play centers on the Benjamin family, three years to the day after their 10-year-old son Linus was killed by an off-duty police officer. The family members struggle with their own version of grief and anguish that manifests in distinct and equally dysfunctional ways.

The set of the Benjamins’ living room is filled with an ingeniously fabricated, shiny metal skeleton of an automobile. In an excellent restrained performance by Dane Troy, father Acts Benjamin focuses all his emotional energy on reconstructing a rare car from parts he found in a junkyard. It’s as though all the love he formerly lavished on his son is now sublimated into rebuilding the “dream car of my mind.” It has become his mojo, his symbol of good luck and power. Despite the prolonged entreaties of his wife, Awilda, that he relate to her on this sad anniversary, he avoids conversation and remains apparently unmoved.

Awilda (Paige Mayes) has turned to god in her grief and is devoted to a reprehensible, greedy pastor (Reginald Wilkins). It is impossible to take one’s eyes off Paige Mayes’ dazzling performance as, dressed in her entirely white church outfit, she nervously flits and flutters around the living room. She searches for her white gloves and the settlement check the family has received in compensation for her younger son’s death.

The older son, Walter (Stanley Hunt), has adopted the name “Blood” and carries a gun and knife. He, too, has been traumatized by his brother’s death. Acts perceives that Blood still has a good heart beneath his newly adopted tough-guy “gangsta” exterior.

And as father and son try to talk, Awilda shows up with the pastor. The pastor tries to sway Awilda into believing her son will live on— but only if he is appropriately (and expensively) memorialized. It becomes clear that the pastor’s cunning manipulation is separating the family. In an unexpectedly comical scene, Blood literally and figuratively unmasks the pastor. The pastor’s devilishness sparks a reawakening of love and harmony in the family.

Paige Mayes as Awilda and Reginald Wilkins as Pastor. Credit: David Flores II

Although foreshadowed, the exact circumstances of Linus’s death are not revealed until the very end of the play. When finally exposed, Acts’ recitation of his son’s shooting is powerfully acted, but after all the anticipation, it’s not a shock.

The Mojo and the Sayso was written initially as a two-act play. As a one-act drama, the introduction seems longer than necessary, followed by a short and rather abrupt resolution that seemed tacked on at the end. This is not because of Ayodele Nzinga’s able direction or the four excellent actors’ performances. They made us care about the characters and remember them. We wish them better days ahead.

The Mojo and the Sayso is playing 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through June 26 at The Flax Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in Oakland. Tickets are $10-$52. All attendees must present proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test and wear a mask. There will be a Livestream performance at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 18, and on-demand access from June 19 to July 10. Tickets are available on the Oakland Theater Project’s website or by calling 510-646-1126.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...