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“Jump” at Actor’s Express gets lost in translation

The Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular suicide site in the world — a fact that has prompted the installation of a suicide barrier on the bridge. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides are up in the United States, outnumbering homicides by tens of thousands. The faces of suicide are getting harder to decipher. It’s not limited to angsty loners. Just last year, design mogul Kate Spade ended her own life, much to the dismay of family, peers and fans.

The idea that jumping off of a bridge is easier than living is one that Charly Evon Simpson toys and toils with in her new drama, Jump. In the play, onstage at Actor’s Express through June 23, a young woman named Fay (Cyrah Hill) is trying to navigate life after loss. Her mother has recently died from cancer; her father (Gerard Catus) is coping by drinking whiskey, and her older sister, Judy (Brittani Minnieweather), is barely hanging on — but we don’t know that yet. Every day, Fay goes to a nearby bridge, where she meets Hopkins (Gil Eplan-Frankel), who is thinking of taking a leap himself. The two bond over existential crises and a desperation for intimacy.

Actor’s Express is the final stop on Jump’s rolling world premiere. This play is unique because it gives the suicide epidemic a different face. Even with increasing conversations about mental health, topics like suicide are often associated with white people. But this is a black family dealing with loss that has nothing to do with gun violence. And suicide numbers for black tweens and teens are nearly twice that of their white peers. Simpson’s premise here is a promising one, but the play has a way to go before it lives up to its potential.

Director Lydia Fort struggles to make the material tangible for the audience. Starting with the ominous red vape pens falling from the sky at the beginning, something about Jump fails to connect. Then, the wide distance between the actors onstage seems too conceptual to be actual. People rarely touch, hug or stand close to each other. If the message of the play is that suicide can happen to anyone, then this physical disconnection almost contradicts the point. It suggests that people commit suicide because they experience isolation, and I’m frankly not sure what Simpson and Fort are trying to say here.

Jump at Actor's Express
Cyrah Hill and Brittani Minnieweather play sisters in the world premiere of Jump at Actor’s Express. (Photo by Casey Gardner)

This is really a disappointment because Simpson’s play Behind the Sheet is so impressive. The show played at Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York to sold-out performances, earning an extended run earlier this year. Behind the Sheet is based on the true story of a doctor who used enslaved women to perform gynecological experiments in the 1800s. Jump is a departure from the historical drama; it feels very immediate but also seems to exist in its own universe, which is part of the problem.

Fay experiences these flashes(?) or tremors(?) of déjà vu(?) that connect her to the spiritual world. However, this connection is so vaguely established that it’s hard to realize that it even exists until the end. By the end of the play, it’s also difficult to decipher the past from the present and memory from real-time action.

The “why” behind Fay and Hopkins’ relationship is unclear, and the chemistry between Hill and Frankel is not there. Catus, who plays Dad, is a talented actor, but his portrayal of the character is so removed that he seems like a stranger to his adult daughters in an odd way.

The play is strongest in the scenes between the sisters. Hill and Minnieweather play off of each other well — one brooding and the other vivacious. A scene where they are getting rid of childhood toys is especially touching. Unfortunately, these stolen moments of intimacy don’t redeem the entire play.

Kudos are also due to set designer Emmie Finckel, who attempts to reconstruct a bridge over water in the theater’s small space. Though the placement of furniture to represent the family home on either side of the bridge doesn’t quite work, the set is beautiful.

Simpson is a talented playwright with a bright future ahead, so I look forward to seeing this play evolve. As of right now, it’s just not where it needs to be to make a lasting impression.