Elliot sits behind the counter of a Philadelphia Subway restaurant, answering the phone. A friend of his is placing an order. Elliot seems positive, but asks the customer to pick up his food at the shop, since his leg is giving him trouble. In the background, A Love Supreme by John Coltrane is playing.
Elliot’s job at a Subway sandwich shop, even though he is in his mid-twenties and a war veteran, establishes him as a man caught in low-wage, low-end work. This is only compounded by the pain in his leg, a constant reminder of his military service and seemingly the only thing he received in return.
At Swarthmore College, Yaz lectures to a class about John Coltrane’s work. She explains that in 1964’s A Love Supreme, although there is “dissonance,” the notes are still structured, as one leads to the next and finds resolution. However, in 1965, Coltrane “democratized the notes” by making them equal. However, she notes, this freedom turns dissonance into chaos and an “ugliness” which serves as an abrupt ending without “the promise of happiness.”
John Coltrane’s jazz, which revolves around the concept of dissonance, forms the primary soundtrack of the play and is a fairly explicit parallel to Yaz’s character development, reflecting the clash of two lifestyles that do not fit easily together. Yaz’s recognition that freedom often devolves into chaos and ugliness foreshadow her own realization that her freedom from the barrio is ultimately meaningless if she cannot take care of her family and embrace who she is.
As Elliot is writing down the customer’s order, a Ghost appears, speaking the same Arabic phrase that Elliot asked Professor Aman to translate. Elliot does his best to ignore the Ghost. As he is taking the order down, Elliot gets a text message and abruptly announces that he won’t be able to fill the order; he just found out about a family emergency. Elliot leaves the store, limping.
The physical pain of Elliot’s limp nearly always mirrors his emotional pain and the guilt he carries. The Ghost thus operates as a symbol of that guilt, reflecting not only his shame over killing a man, but also the guilt he later expresses over his hatred for Odessa.
Yaz tries to convince her students that although it seems academic, jazz is more interesting and important than they realize. As an assignment, she tells her students to recall and analyze the first time they became aware of dissonance. For her, it was when she was thirteen, after working in a factory all summer to save enough to hire a music teacher, to whom she announced she was a composer. After she played a piano piece she wrote for her teacher, he remarked that it was pretty but fit together too easily. Instead, he taught her to play one chord on the piano with her left hand and a contrasting chord with her right hand, creating a more interesting, dynamic sound.
Once again, Yaz’s focus on dissonance reflects her own life, where the contrast between her Ivy League professorship and her Puerto Rican roots cause a conflict of identity. Her music teacher’s observation that her composition fits together too easily, not as novel as it could be, seems to reflect Yaz’s aspirations for her life as a young girl. She did not want to simply fit in to her family and culture, rather to break free of it.
Yaz receives a phone call and tells her class to take a short break. Elliot is on the phone, telling her that his dad just texted him to say, “Your mom is on the breathing machine.” The curtness of a text message infuriates Elliot and he feels guilty for leaving his Mami Ginny alone that day. He tells Yaz that he was so upset he punched through a mirror at work. As Yaz is leaving to pick Elliot up and go to the hospital, she receives a text from Elliot’s dad: “Waiting for Elliot till we turn off the machine.”
Elliot’s relationship with his dad is never explored and he is only ever represented through the few text messages he sends. However, his absence from the story and Elliot’s response to his messages suggests that he has a strained, minimal relationship with Elliot. This again suggests the frailty of biological family and explains why Elliot should form his familial bonds with people other than his biological parents.