From U Street to the Cotton Club at Source couldn’t be better geographically positioned, just two blocks from the legendary U Street, the Lincoln Theatre, and a number of historical and cultural landmarks of the corridor. Penned by local writer Sybil R. Williams from her script Lena’s Legacy, the production has more of a personal storyline than the typical musical revue, and direction by KenYatta Rogers assures a solid theatrical base. The talented performers and crowd pleasing music have all the makings of a full fledged hit for In Series. The production gets high marks for a quality showcase. It could be even better if aspects of the storyline were nudged up a notch, but it’s an all around fun way to spend a couple of hours in the city.
At rise, center stage, a young woman, going through a prominently placed trunk of her recently departed grandma, Mama Lena, discovers her grandmother’s musical history and begins to relive it. It’s a great set-up for a nostalgic journey through time and offers a theatrical way to weave through the Harlem Renaissance with all its glorious music.
All the standards are there – “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Ain’t Misbehaving” and the like. What makes this a standout is the wonderful dialogue between songs reflecting what was going on throughout the era and its effect on the narrator, Lena. She starts off in South Carolina and makes her way north to U Street before heading to Harlem which is the setting for the bulk of the piece and obviously where the action is. Which is all well and good, I mean, what can hold a candle to Harlem in its heyday?
Still, the information about Washington is rather skimpy. I would have liked a little more than a quick, obligatory reference to the Lincoln and a couple of joints on U Street before ditching Chocolate City and grabbing the A-Train. That’s an unfortunate weak link in the material, and it’s not NYC-envy talking– the play needs a serious D.C. anchor to understand why Lena longs to return home when the depression hits the jumping joints. Without a clear sense of home firmly established, then it just looks like she cuts and runs when the going gets tough. The story would be better served by the character returning To something, not just getting away from hard times.
That quibble aside, the actual expressions of the play and the music are all glorious. The cast members are standouts. Most are local hometowners who have excelled since their early Duke Ellington school days. Pam Ward gets everybody warmed up with her soulful Bessie Smith rendition of “Gimme a Pig Foot”. Brian Q. Thorne brings down the house with Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” while Stanley Webber cuts a rug in “Walkin’ Blues” and “This Joint Is Jumpin'”. Pianist and musical director Stanley Thurston knows his way around a keyboard and plays like a man possessed with channeling the great Jelly Roll Morton himself, along with Rudy Gonzalez on saxophone and Nelson Alvarez on drums.
Michelle Rogers does a fine job as narrator leading us along the journey as a Harlem Renaissance songbird although she doesn’t sing. In an interesting casting decision, she plays the dramatic portions of the play while the performers work the numbers, which felt awkward at first but slowly began to make sense. Giving Rogers the dramatic assignment as Lena frees them up to perform the music as free spirits, while she displays just the right sweetness and character interpretation for Lena’s journey.
KenYatta Rogers, (Michelle’s real life other half) assures a steady theatrical pace and with Assistant Director and Choreographer Angelisa Gillyard work wonders with the movement and spacing. One number is particularly effective and haunting as the characters come out in white masks and long black coats, quietly rocking back and forth, made all the more menacing since they are actually facing the back while their masks and attire all face forward. It sounds bizarre, but the scene relays an ominous sense of danger and is an example of what can be done with simple creative touches.
Speaking of the costumes, hats off to Donna Breslin for the tantalizing attire for the ensemble, including drop dead gorgeous tuxes with tails opening the second act, and to set and property designer, Osbel Susman-Pena who assembled a stage full of precious memorabilia that will surely take you back to a by-gone era.
From U Street to the Cotton Club
Storyline by Sybil R. Williams
Directed by KenYatta Rodgers
Produced by the In Series
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.