Reinventing Perry Henzell’s legendary 1972 film The Harder They Come for the stage was never going to be simple, straightforward, clear-cut, obvious, or easy. The film—now widely regarded as perhaps the greatest Jamaican film ever and a landmark in terms of bringing reggae music to the rest of the world (Bob Marley would only begin to go global the following year)—is none of those things: It’s a hectic, fast-paced romp through the street life and subcultures and helter-skelter alliances of Kingston, Jamaica, replete with backbiting, double-crossing, payola, corruption… and a killer soundtrack.
So too is the new production at the Public Theater (just extended through April 9), with a book (and a few new songs) by the acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. The broad strokes are much the same from film to stage: Young, ambitious Ivan (Natey Jones) heads to the big city in gleeful pursuit of fame and fortune by way of a hit song he’s striving to record. When he finds himself locked out of that pursuit because he won’t sign a dead-end deal with the local hitmaker, Hilton (Ken Robinson)—who is, of course, in cahoots with not just the deejays and record store owners of the island, but with the corrupt police as well—Ivan takes shelter in a church led by a charismatic preacher (J. Bernard Calloway), where he meets the upstanding Elsa (played by the singer Meecah). And when Ivan and Elsa’s burgeoning love leads to some burgeoning trouble at the hands of the not entirely holy preacher, Ivan finally takes a job with the local cannabis entrepreneur—or, in the parlance of the time and place, ganja smuggler—José (Dominique Johnson). You can guess where things go from here—in short: big trouble.
So far, plot-wise, we’re tracking quite similar to the film, though Parks’s stage adaptation includes 23 songs—or verses of songs, or snippets—in the first act alone (the film had 11 total). The second act, though, condenses and telescopes what, in Henzell’s film, is Ivan’s righteous, wasted, and gloriously desperate run from the law (if you’ve heard The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”—“You see, he feels like Ivan/ Born under the Brixton sun/ His game is called survivin’/ At the end of The Harder They Come”—you know the vibe) into a rather more tidy morality play. We get to the same place; it’s just a quicker trip, with less detail and nuance.
Does it all work? The songs and music certainly do. If the film’s original songs are still the best potted history of the Jamaican music of the era, the added numbers—whether mined from the same rich musical terrain of the time (it’s my long-held contention that, measured by either population or square mile, Jamaica’s musical contribution to the world is rivaled by no other country on earth) or conjured by Parks—only build on that accolade, and they’re rendered in a spectrum that ranges only from breathtaking to awe-inspiring.