Dasan Ahanu talks about “Love Jones” with a smile in his voice.
The Durham-based poet and educator remembers seeing the movie when it came out in 1997. Nineteen years later, he says, he still quotes from and makes references to it with friends.
He readily sifts through scenes he loves. “We quote Darius’ poem when he meets Nina, the conversation at the table. … The conversation at the party between the men and the women.”
For Ahanu and other fans, the romantic drama isn’t really a relic. “Love Jones” is considered a cult classic, one of those movies you’re supposed to have seen and you only sheepishly admit that you haven’t.
That’s the fervor the musical stage version of the movie has tapped. Touring nationally, “Love Jones – The Musical” stops at the Durham Performing Arts Center Tuesday and Wednesday with a cast chock full of popular R&B names associated with it, including Chrisette Michele, Dave Hollister, Musiq Soulchild, Raheem DeVaughn, Marsha Ambrosius and MC Lyte.
For years, fans have wished for a sequel of the independent film, and the stars of “Love Jones,” Nia Long and Larenz Tate, have said they’d be willing to consider it. But nothing has happened. The play, though, has the seeming approval of the film’s original writer and director, Theodore Witcher. He’s serving as a consulting producer, lending a bit of credibility to the effort.
Yet in the end, the fuel behind the enthusiasm for the play (it originally had a one-day run at the DPAC; demand fueled a second night) is the love folks have for the big screen version.
“It’s one of those movies they always run on TV, just you know, one of those most loved, iconic films in the black community,” says Melvin Childs, the theater producer behind the stage version. “When I was looking to produce a play, I set my sights on this one. It was the only one I set my sights on.”
“Love Jones” follows Darius (Tate) and Nina (Long), two twenty-something Chicagoans, chronicling their relationship, their friends (including Bill Bellamy and Isaiah Washington), their lives. It’s a small film and although it earned good reviews, it didn’t make much money; just $12.7 million, according to Box Office Mojo, after costing an estimated $10 million to produce.
In plot points, it’s simple, even routine. They meet just after Nina’s broken an engagement and sworn off love. They fall hard, but deny it; each insists they’re “just kicking it,” but the truth is, they’re crazy for each other. (Hence, the title.) Nina’s ex returns and invites her to New York to rekindle their spark. She tells Darius and he shrugs it off as if it doesn’t matter. Things don’t work out with the ex and Nina returns, hoping to get back with Darius, but she sees him with a woman and pulls back. They finally get back together, but distrust lingers, so they break up. She leaves, they pine, they find each other again. They vow to make it work. They seal that promise with a kiss in the rain.
I knew guys like that. I knew women like that. I remember being in that relationship. It was truer to life than I had seen.
Nix, of Durham who runs
Yet it’s the skin on those beats that made the story something more. Darius and Nina are artists: He’s a writer. She’s a photographer. They meet at a spoken word nightspot in Chicago; he goes to the open mic and tries to seduce her with a poem he’s written, and spontaneously dedicates to her. They meet again at a vinyl record shop where he plays her a Charlie Parker tune. Their conversations include references to George Bernard Shaw, Gordon Parks and Sonia Sanchez.
To dismiss those details as overly romantic is to miss something. In 1997– and some would say not often enough today – black life in all its dimensions wasn’t readily portrayed. Witcher, just 24 when the film was made, mined his experiences and brought not just the characters to life, but a world that felt familiar and attainable and magical and authentic.
“I knew guys like that,” says Nix, the one-named Durhamite who runs TheMovieTalk.com, a movie review site. “I knew women like that. I remember being in that relationship. It was truer to life than I had seen.”
In the film’s male characters, for instance, Ahanu says he and his friends see the men they were, the men they’ve been, or men they know. “When you’re black, you know how diverse the experiences are. You have a friend who is looking for the come up, a friend who is well read … all those folks are there and all those things happen. I don’t like for our experiences to be narrowed. I like to broaden the narrative of what black life is.”
Setting a bar
In a way, films seemed to be doing just that in the ’90s. Spike Lee was in full ascendancy having released “Do The Right Thing,” in July of 1989. He’d follow that with “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990) a look at the life of a jazz trumpeter, the interracial relationship drama “Jungle Fever” (1991) and the biography “Malcolm X” (1992). Another bio, “What’s Love Got to Do It” (1992,) earned Oscar nominations for Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as Tina and Ike Turner. “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995) brought Walter Mosley’s 1940s-era black detective to life as Denzel Washington.
Contemporary urban life was portrayed too. “New Jack City” (1991) revealed the toll of the crack epidemic in New York. “Boyz n the Hood” (1991) and “Menace II Society” (1993) offered poignant, gritty views of life in South Central Los Angeles’ gangland neighborhoods; “Friday” (1995) gave the world a comedy about black stoners from the same place.
Yet that too was the problem. Franklin Cason, an assistant professor at N.C. State University who teaches film courses and is a filmmaker himself, says he was disappointed in the kinds of black movies coming out in the decade.
“It was the first time I had an awareness of certain films getting made and those not being made,” he says.
His comments point to something Nix, too, felt about films of that era and what “Love Jones” offered. “It was the time of ‘Menace II Society,’ ” she says. “I didn’t know anything about that [lifestyle], but this I could relate to.”
Cason, who lived in Chicago during the time “Love Jones” was filming, said the delicacy of the script was important. After all, “Booty Call,” a broad romantic comedy starring Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson and Vivica A. Fox, came out a month before “Love Jones.”
“There were romantic comedies with blacks but nothing with a more mature approach to comedy,” he says. The closest comparison would be “Boomerang,” he says. The 1992 comedy, starring Eddie Murphy in a love triangle with Halle Berry and Robin Givens, showcased an all-black cast in the professional setting of a New York advertising agency.
“Boomerang was more subtle [than ‘Booty Call’], but it was still over the top,” he says. “ ‘Love Jones’ set a bar.”
He sees films like “The Best Man” (1999) and “Brown Sugar” (2002) as the children of “Love Jones.”
“You see a bourgeoisie middle class in them, yet ‘Love Jones’ still stands out because of the dialogue. It actively captured small segments of a huge population in Chicago and it was fairly accurate. It didn’t seem like someone outside the black community came in and made the film.”
Indeed, while the story focused on Darius and Nina’s love story, the film was a love letter to Witcher’s Chicago. It opens with documentary black and white images of everyday African Americans as seen through Nina’s camera. As we follow the couple, layers of Chicago are revealed. They go steppin’, a partner dance style related to swing.
It was the urgency of spoken word club scenes that particularly resonated with Ahanu. He had just started going to readings in Raleigh, where he grew up, he says. “I didn’t know it was happening in other cities. And then there it was. It was like, wow!”
I grew up in the South, on a dirt road. It was very different than Chicago. I knew no one like that. But it felt like what I wanted to be.
Writer Tyrese Coleman, who now lives in D.C.
He remembers watching the movie and thinking about the other things he could bring to his own poetry, like a set with live musicians. “Being Southern, and growing up down here, it was big for me.”
It was big for writer Tyrese Coleman too. She saw the movie when she was 17, a year away from college.
“I grew up in the South, on a dirt road. It was very different than Chicago,” says Coleman, who lives in the Wash., D.C. area. “I knew no one like that. But it felt like what I wanted to be.”
She sees the film as a complement to “A Different World,” the television spinoff of “The Cosby Show” featuring students at a historically black college. “[That] showed me I could go to college. ‘Love Jones’ was the next step. I could graduate, I could become a writer, I could fall in love. Which are things that I did.”
In a 2015 essay on Hello Giggles, an online platform for women, Coleman shared how the “Love Jones” soundtrack affected her life. “I bought the movie soundtrack on cassette and wore that sucker out in my mother’s 1993 black Nissan Sentra,” she wrote.
At the time, the soundtrack probably was heard more often than the movie was seen. It peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 on the R&B/Hip-Hop albums list with tunes some might categorize as “neosoul,” including “Hopeless” by Dionne Farris and “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” by Maxwell, as well as jazz standards like “In a Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington & John Coltrane.
Coleman’s favorite song from the film is “The Sweetest Thing” written and performed by Lauryn Hill, a tender song that features scenes and moments shared by a woman in love. She played it, she writes, every night on repeat, “pen and paper poised next to a wild and open candle flame.” Writing the lyrics, listening to the words taught her about real life and language, about the power of imagery, she says.
The soundtrack set the mood in “Love Jones,” and Childs, recognizing its significance, ensured that the musical record its own soundtrack, which will be sold at performances. He says there are 17 songs in the musical itself, some original, some old R&B songs.
When he saw the film in 1997, he wasn’t exactly a fan. “I’m a male,” he says, laughing. “Not a whole lot of African-American males were fans. It’s a chick flick. I was not a fan of the spoken word. The story line was over my head. As a twenty-something, I didn’t get it.”
He’s seen it multiple times since then, he says. A veteran producer of 15 plays in the last 20 years, Childs started out working with Tyler Perry and has been a consultant for theater for the last few years. He thinks African-American theater is in trouble and he wants to help.
He says “Love Jones’ ” main story line hasn’t changed in the musical – there’s still a Darius, there’s still a Nina and there’s still a love story between them. It’s still set in Chicago, although the city doesn’t really have a presence in the production. Fans will hear some of the dialogue from the movie. But some of the minor storylines have changed, and there’s been some fleshing out of the other characters. You probably should look to see the film on the stage. “It’s different but the same,” he says. “The script is pretty phenomenal. You can’t do better.”
Nix admits that the names associated with the production are strong singers (not all the names appear at all the shows, according to the official website), but “they’re not actors.” That gives her pause.
Ahanu is more optimistic. “I hope to get tickets before they sell out,” he says. “I want to see it and I hope it goes well. I’m interested in how it moves, how it plays out, what songs they use. The artist and writer in me is so curious about how it all gets put together.”
“I don’t want something so precious to be messed around with,” Coleman says. “My concern is that it would be cheesy, one of those overdramatic, put everything-in-the-pot type of plays.”
Cason is cautious too. “Leave it alone,” he says. “I’d rather see a good Blu-ray release.”
In one of his classes, he shows the film to his students and he gets a mix of responses. He attributes that to the fact that his students are used to the black romances of today which are more often comedies.
And that’s why ultimately, he says, “Love Jones – the Musical” could be a good thing. “I’m happy the play is happening for no other reason than it’s an underrated film. Recognizing it is maintaining interest and respect for it. That’s important.”
What: “Love Jones
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday
Where: DPAC, 123 Vivian St., Durham
Cost: Tickets range from $46 to $76, plus fees.
On sale: There are a limited number of tickets left for Tuesday’s performance. dpacnc.com