If you're familiar with the intro music at History Theatre's "Diesel Heart" — Charles Mingus' anti-racism-themed "Fables of Faubus" — it nicely sets up a key element of the play.
"Diesel" features Melvin Carter Jr. (Mikell Sapp as an adult), in direct address, telling us his story. A lot of it is colored by racism and his response to it: He experiences bigotry at school, in the destruction of the St. Paul Rondo neighborhood where he grew up, in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and when he becomes a trailblazing Black officer in the St. Paul Police Department.
Many a biographical play has tried to tackle the entire life of a protagonist and almost every one has bumped up against the same problem that "Diesel" does: A key sequence of events can bring focus to a drama but trying to cram in everything leads to something disjointed and shapeless.
Individual scenes do pop in "Diesel" but just when Brian Grandison's play, written in collaboration with its hero, begins to gather some momentum, we're yanked out of the moment. That's particularly true with the main character. Sapp's performance has passion and soul but the play forces him to tell the story he's observing as much as it allows him to show his part in it.
There are dozens of characters in "Diesel," played by an agile ensemble. In one five-minute span, Darius Dotch plays both a cop who asks Carter to join the force and a friend who begs him not to. But with so many characters jumping across so many decades, most of the characterizations are necessarily sketchy.
One big exception is Monica E. Scott as Carter's mother, a nurturer and teacher who is drawn in a million directions at once. She has the zestiest, most character-rich dialogue in the show. "Say something else and just see if I don't snatch those lips from off your lying face," she says. Scott invests her with personality and humor. As a result, every scene with Mama — and there are many of them — springs to life.
Another highlight is the work of Seitu Jones, whose scenic design incorporates his art, combined with projections by Kathy Maxwell, into the backdrops. Not surprisingly, the vibrantly colored paintings are gorgeous but, beyond that, they convey both a sense of St. Paul as home for Carter (whose son, Melvin Carter III, is the current mayor) and of the big, bright possibilities that awaited him.
"Diesel Heart" can only hint at some of those possibilities for Carter, including the Save Our Sons organization that helps young men leave gangs.
A feature in the program about Save Our Sons points to dramatic stories in his work there. Possibly enough for a more focused "Diesel Heart" sequel somewhere down the road?
Who: By Brian Grandison, in collaboration with Melvin Carter Jr. Directed by Warren C. Bowles.
When: 7:30 Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends April 2.
Where: History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul.
Protocol: Masks required at Friday and Sunday performances.
Tickets: $20-$58, 651-292-4323 or historytheatre.com.