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SUBSTANCE AND STORYTELLING IN SONG: “Joni and JT in Jail” debuts this weekend at TheatreNow

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We make assumptions of others based on our own history, our own truths, throughout our lives. It’s not until we’re thrusted into someone else’s world that we see things (and others) in a new light. America circa 1960s sets the tone for alternative views of life and the world in “Joni and JT in Jail,” which will debut at TheatreNow (19 S. 10th St.) this Friday, August 7 at 7 p.m.

Set in 1968, a time when a lot was happening in terms social justice, civil rights and Americans’ perception of the Vietnam War, “Joni and JT in Jail” features six characters either in attendance at, or caught up in, an anti-war protest in an unnamed American city. Locally written by Mirla Criste, the characters all end up arrested and placed in the same holding cell. They spend time thereafter getting to know one another, their unknown similarities and differences, and often in song.

What motivated this story, these characters and the songs they sing, was the fact that much of TheatreNOW’s audience were youngsters during the ’60s. “I wanted to put together an evening of this era’s folk music, which might encourage them to attend, enjoy, and even sing along,” explains Criste, who directs and acts in the play. “However, I wasn’t interested in a garden-variety musical revue. I wanted to thread the songs together in some creative way, preferably a narrative that would take the audience on a journey, which is what theatre does best.”

Criste prefers plays with substance and storytelling through music, rather than having a musical interlude interrupt the plot. In the heat of Vietnam War protests in 1968, some of the best-known folk songs were written before and leading up to that year. Audiences will likely recognize—even sing along to—songs by Pete Seeger, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as songs by play’s namesakes, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor (though neither is a character).

“I had two criteria for choosing the songs,” Criste divulges. “I wanted them to be generally well-known and hummable, if not singable, by the audience, and I also wanted songs that would help forward the action of the play, and give some insight into the characters.”

A Journey from Inside: Amy Smith (Jennie), Rashad Burns (Preacher), Ron Hasson (Cash), Mirla Criste (Lou), David Gwaltney (Jackson), and Emily Gomez (Annabelle).

A Journey from Inside: Amy Smith (Jennie), Rashad Burns (Preacher), Ron Hasson (Cash), Mirla Criste (Lou), David Gwaltney (Jackson), and Emily Gomez (Annabelle).

Two of the most outspoken voices of the 1960s’ protest era, Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, came into play for Criste’s writing and connecting its topical relevance to today. Bobby Kennedy, for example, once characterized America as highly polarized—something imminently portrayed on any news station today. Criste’s characters continue to make that generational connection. Audiences will be introduced to a drifter, a flower child, a mother, a veteran, a young activist, and a sixth character who’s not so easily pegged from the beginning.

“Each certainly could be considered a ‘type,’” Criste explains, “and they make some assumptions about each other, based on their own experience in the world with such ‘types.’  At some point they realize that they’re also layered individuals with complex histories.”

Criste’s character, Lou, evolved since the playwright began penning “Joni and JT in Jail.” She didn’t know the role would become hers. “Playwrights enjoy certain perks when shaping characters for themselves,” she quips. “Lou is now Native American (a type I appear to be cast as often) [and] she has a son in Vietnam.”

Though the most significant difference between her character’s life and her own is that she doesn’t have biological children, as a college professor Criste likes to say she has anywhere from 50 to 150 “children” every semester. “Back in 2004 I had a student—the captain of the football team, president of his class as I recall, and a wonderful young actor to boot—who one day told me that he had enlisted, and that immediately after he graduated, he was shipping out with the Marines to join the war effort in the Middle East,” she shares. “That was pretty hard to hear. I always wonder how and where he is, and what his journey has been.”

In TheatreNOW fashion, Chef Denise Gordon has prepared a three-course meal, inspired by the era:

First Course
The Iceberg Wedge (bleu cheese dressing on side)

Entrees (choose one)
Chicken Kiev with a quinoa-rice pilaf and chef’s vegetables.

Tuna Niçoise Salad à la Julia Child
Chilled ahi tuna, lettuce, tomato, olives, green beans, potatoes, boiled egg, and lemon vinaigrette.

Portobello Mushroom Tetrazzini
Fresh roasted portobellos in a casserole, with creamy sherry sauce and pasta.

Smothered Steak
Twice-baked potato and chef’s vegetables

Dessert of the Day

“Joni and JT in Jail” will show Friday and Saturdays only at TheatreNOW, starting August 7 and running through September 5, at 7 p.m. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit


Joni and JT in Jail
Written and directed by Mirla Criste
Friday and Saturdays, Aug. 7 – Sept. 5 , 7pm
Tickets: Admission: $30-$32, $18 for Show Only
Doors open 1 hour prior to show.
Free valet parking.

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