Chicago Theatre Company

Yonder Come Day is the story of the last six hospitalized weeks in the life of an AIDS patient named J.D. Playwright-actor Marijo tells this story in a little over an hour, playing all the roles–J.D. and his friends, relatives, and nurses. She shows the horror and helplessness of J.D.’s death without either diminishing or exaggerating his pain. And though it may not sound like a great time at the theater, it is. Yonder Come Day is a comedy–a sad, horrific, frightening, realistic, humane, very funny, and ultimately inspiring comedy.

Because J.D. is unable to say more than one word at a time–one word per gasp is his limit–the play focuses on his visitors. In the course of the play the visitors become a small society, united by their love for J.D. Marijo comically exaggerates the habits and walks of J.D.’s friends–Frankie, George, Falette, and the apparently autobiographical narrator–and his nurses. Though the caricatures are often hilarious, the jokes come at the expense of vain notions of human decorum–characters’ good intentions are never ridiculed.

On the other hand, unsympathetic characters, those without good intentions, aren’t ridiculed at all. In a scene involving J.D.’s self-righteous, homophobic cousin, Marijo doesn’t strain to condemn her as an actor or writer with an ax to grind might. She simply shows hate for what it is, and there’s nothing funny about it.

J.D. is never made fun of. He’s simply shown breathing painfully and slowly, grateful for the company, eyes alive. The simplicity of the portrayal is what makes the pathos effective.

Marijo and director Keryl McCord convey the realistic world of the play with a remarkable economy. Marijo plays everyone from a sassy teenage girl to a devout man in his 70s, by changing her stance and her voice. Characters are also differentiated by the use of a sash–as a belt, a headband, a bow tie, or a preacher’s stole. There are few props onstage–most are effectively mimed. But Marijo careening around the stage, miming a high-speed car ride, provides more dash and pleasure than the most realistic onstage car would have.

From time to time Marijo abandons traditional realistic portraiture and plays the Carnival Barker–a tongue-wagging, laughing, leering personification of the demon AIDS. The Carnival Barker gleefully names AIDS’s attendant diseases and describes their horrible effects. He is terribly amused by the various myths of the origin of AIDS, speaking in rhyme about its possible laboratory genesis. It’s a good, real nightmare. The Carnival Barker says: AIDS can be anywhere, and AIDS wants you.

For the scene of J.D.’s death, Marijo and sound designer Corbiere T. Boynes create a complex aural image. We hear a polyrhythmic mix of thumping heartbeat and beeping electronic monitor as Marijo (now the narrator) sings a spiritual. When the thumping and beeping and spiritual end, J.D.’s father sings and prays over J.D.’s corpse. The narrator sings to comfort herself, and Marijo differentiates beautifully between the voices and singers.

In the last scene, Yonder Come Day reconciles death with its comic vision. Using a traditional funeral rite, Marijo shows that an individual’s death, however painful, does not destroy human society. A hilarious holy-rolling preacher delivers an earthy eulogy, one that doesn’t idealize death as a doorway to heaven, or deny worldly concerns for the sake of the hereafter, but accepts the tragedy of death as an undeniable fact. The preacher travels through a funny procession of pop-culture images and makes a call for unselfish self-knowledge to arrive at his–and the play’s–conclusion.

The preacher addresses not only J.D.’s mourners, but us. He makes the idea of social continuity–essential to traditional comedy–not an aesthetic exercise but a necessary fact, at least for the time we occupy the comfortable Chicago Theatre Company space. We’re left not merely admiring the excellence of a production, but ready for action.