There’s one spot in DC where the glories of U Street’s “Black Broadway” are alive and well as The In Series performs From U Street to the Cotton Club at Source Theatre.
Set in the attic of a fictional club singer named Grandma “Sassy” Lena, the evening is a tour (though by no means a straightforward history) of the music of black singers and musicians during the heyday of private clubs such as The Savoy and The Cotton Club.
The evening begins somewhat somberly: Grandma Lena’s funeral reception is going on downstairs, but the grandkids (real-life siblings Kasai Rogers and cute-as-a-button Mecca Rogers) have snuck upstairs and found her trunk of memorabilia. Led by their mother (Michelle Rogers as Grandma Lena/Little Lena), an evening of memories is unpacked before us.
It’s unfortunate that the script continuously intervenes with overlong passages that often bear no relation to the songs that follow. In one instance, the race riots of 1919 are brought to the fore in agonizing detail, but the upbeat club songs that follow weren’t written at that time, and the dissonance between the monologue by Little Lena and the pieces that follow are disorienting rather than informative. But it’s worth waiting through the intros to get to those songs which start with acapella spirituals and continuing with the big, bouncy pieces of the Big Band era.
From U Street to the Cotton Club
closes January 20, 2019
Details and tickets
Ensemble members Detra Battle, Brian Quenton Thorne, Pam Ward, Greg Watkins and Michelle Rogers all have sparkling moments that sweep us away. Thorne in particular has the most poignant of songs: “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime,” with its little-heard prologue, which seems to gush directly from his heart. If you don’t get a bit teary eyed during this piece, then kid, there is something seriously wrong with you.
Among all the talented ensemble, it’s Greg Watkins who shines the brightest and most consistently. His rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose” is as sweet as the title, and heavens to Murgatroyd, can that guy jive. The beginning of Act 2 opens with his moves to “This Joint Is Jumpin” and the only complaint is that there’s no room onstage for us to jump with him.
As a matter of fact, it’s hard not to sing along at times- we swoon over Pam Ward’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” (see, you’re humming already). And Ward’s “Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer” is sung in a lusty, resonant voice that can undoubtedly be heard all the way to U and 14th. Goodness but that woman has pipes. Detra Battle, who has a more operatic approach to the music, is well suited to “In A Sentimental Mood” and is a pleasure to hear.
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Though most of Sybil R. Williams’ script seems unsuited to the ebullient music, there are poetic excerpts by legendary writers such as Georgia Douglas Johnson, Claude McKay, and W.E.B. Du Bois woven into the piece, and it’s when these words are spoken that the monologues fly the highest. “I, Too”, Langston Hughes’ beautiful piece about belonging at the table of America, is a particular highlight of the evening. Delivered by the young actor Kasai Rogers, it’s a powerful declaration of equality that, though written in 1926, still resonates:
“I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.”
Black music of the 1930s-40s was not just a way to earn a living but also an affirmation of survival in the Jim Crow era. “Drop Me Off in Harlem”, sung by Thorne, makes one long, not Paris or London or even The Great White Way of Broadway, but for Harlem. And “Take the A Train,” Billy Strayhorn’s 1939 seminal work made famous by Duke Ellington, though ostensibly a simple song about taking the New York subway, its undercurrent is a celebration of Harlem.
The set (R. Scott Hengren) is simple enough, just boxes and trunks; the lighting (Marianne Meadows) renders a nice mood, and a scrim is used to great effect by director KenYatta Rogers. Choreography (Angelisa Gillyard) is somewhat simple, but with the small stage of the Source and no levels at all, there isn’t much to work with. However, costumes, particularly some of the womens’ costumes by Moyenda Kulemeka, are not flattering.
The evening is best when it’s all about the music: a fine three piece trio led by Music Director Stanley Thurston on piano with Percy White on bass and Richard Slye on percussion, the sound is full of Jive and Joy. Oh, and you do get to sing along after all to the chorus of “Minnie The Moocher”: Hi-De-Hi-De-Hi-De-Ho.”
From U Street To The Cotton Club . Script by Sybil R. Williams: Lena’s Legacy, a play with music . Director: KenYatta Rogers . Assistant Director: James Nelson . Music Director & Pianist: Stanley Thurston . Bassist: Percy White . Percussionist: Richard Slye . Choreography: Angelisa Gillyard . Costume Design: Moyenda Kulemeka . Set Design: R. Scott Hengen . Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows . Stage Manager: Cindy King . Ensemble: Detra Battle, Brian Quentin Thorne, Pam Ward, Greg Watkins, with Kasai Rogers and Mecca Rogers . Produced by The In Series . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.