KPBS AIRDATE: MAY 26, 1999
MUSIC: up with Dizzie Gillespie jazz number
If you’d like to feel the voice, the rhythm and the beat of the African American community, the time is now and the place is the theater.
We were just visited by the national touring company of the wildly acclaimed “Bring in ‘Da Noise/Bring in ‘Da Funk,” which, while telling its tale of blacks in America, rapped and tapped its way into the collective consciousness.
Same with OyamO’s “I Am A Man,” a stirring story of the black garbage workers’ strike that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis in 1968, only to be assassinated. This collaborative effort between the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre and Grossmont College brought some color to the campus drama department, and some wonderfully committed performances, most notably from T.J. Johnson and Joe Powers, as the strong-willed union organizer and the hard-headed Memphis mayor.
Coming up at the Old Globe, there’s “Thunder Knocking on the Door,” a musical about love and the power of the blues. And just opened at the La Jolla Playhouse, a drama with music about jazz-playing women in the waning days of the Second World War.
MUSIC up, from “Oo-Bla-Dee”
In “Oo-bla-Dee,” it’s all about time – keeping time, making time, marking time, Colored People’s Time. Time, in fact, is a character, bending and stretching itself throughout the story in the supple body of Sabrina LeBeauf. Part metaphor, moon/muse and Greek chorus, Time is both help and hindrance, capable of enhancing anticipation and laughing at human folly. The character’s name is Luna C, and LeBeauf also recreates significant people from the past. The conceit doesn’t always work in this magical, musical piece, but it nearly always does. The whole effort is near-perfect, but it still needs some tweaking.
Writer/director Regina Taylor has a musician’s sensibility and a poet’s soul. Part realist, part romantic, she weaves a complex, colorful tapestry of five intertwining lives: four feisty female jazz-makers and their accommodating male manager. Inspired by the bebop song, “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee,” written by musical groundbreaker Mary Lou Williams and recorded in the ‘40s by Dizzie Gillespie, the play takes a long, hard look at black women jazzmakers at the tail-end of the Second World War. They made music, they made a place for themselves, and then the men came back and wanted everything just the way it used to be. And those fabulous female musicians were just about lost to history.
Taylor doesn’t forget about the men, either, and she paints a horrific picture of how history tried to erase them, too, even those African Americans in uniform, home from defending their country, but still subject to senseless acts of racism and violence. Twice in one week, we saw the chilling specter of a lynching onstage: in “Noise/Funk” and again here; no black history can escape the horror.
But at bottom, “Oo-Bla-Dee” is one woman’s story, a woman trying to find her name, her voice, her music, her freedom, her place in life. It’s ultimately all about Gin del Sol, sax-player extraordinaire, and her quest to make it big in the all-female band, Evelyn Waters and the Diviners. Time isn’t on her side. And she ultimately loses herself in the music, though her conclusion isn’t totally clear. Caroline Clay is outstanding as Gin, as are her jazz-sisters: Cheryl Lynn Bruce as a solidly maternal Ruby; Myra Taylor, a bit over-the-top as drummer Lulu; and Jacqueline Williams as the head diva/Diviner, Evelyn Waters.
The real enchantment of the piece is its musicality; it’s written in three ‘movements,’ and each character speaks like her instrument: Lu in loud, percussive bursts; Ruby, the bass-player, slower, deeper, more undulating; Evelyn, the pianist, multi-layered, always striving for the lead melody part; and Gin, in hyper-emotional, horn-wailing solos. The men are neither written nor acted as strongly…. Since its opening in Chicago, the play has been considerably cut; it could still use more trimming, and the role of Time could be more subtle, less intrusive. But Taylor has a wonderful, lyrical voice — and something to say – a rare and seductive combination in the theater.
MUSIC: out with “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee”
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.