Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: DECEMBER 3, 2010
Life was a mixed bag for African Americans in the early 20th century. Some folks were finding their way in business or music… or just trying to find their way. Some fell into unsavory activities. Many fell in love. Every permutation seems to surface in two current productions: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” set in Pittsburgh , 1911, and “ Storyville ,” which takes place in New Orleans , 1917.
There’s a lot of backstory to “ Storyville .” Both the play and the place have some history. Storyville was the red-light district of the Big Easy, filled with bordellos, dance halls and gambling joints. Ma Rainey, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong came out of that sector. And so did a musical that originated at UCSD in 1977.
Now along comes Broadway veteran Ken Page, to revise and direct the show at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, revisiting the book by playwright Ed Bullins and music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden . But even with a stellar cast, and choreography by Hector Mercado, a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey Company, the show still has big problems: too many stories, too many loose threads untied at the end. And too many songs for a book musical. But you couldn’t find a better cast or backup band.
Hot Licks Sam, the trumpet king of Storyville until a young buck comes to town, is played by Victor Morris, a compelling actor and singer, and a knockout trumpeter. Other outstanding performances in the 22-member cast include hunky Alvester Martin III as the new trumpeter in town; Natalie Wachen as his main squeeze; 6th grader Tahj Myers as her son; DeBorah Sharpe-Taylor as the local voodoo queen; Leigh Scarritt as the brothel Madam; Chondra Profit as her sexiest charge; and Paul James Kruse as the crooked Mayor. A great story about the dying days of a fascinating era, but the piece has a long way to go.
Things were also unsettled in Pittsburgh at the time, according to “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” one of the most magical creations of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. Everyone at Seth and Bertha’s bed and breakfast is in transition, looking for love or a livelihood or family lost after Emancipation. It’s all about “finding your song.”
Award-winning director Kyle Donnelly , head of UCSD’s MFA Acting Program, has marshaled an impressive cast, anchored by Bowman Wright as the haunted Herald Loomis, and Kyle Anderson and Ngozi Anyanwu as his hosts. The action is punctuated by powerhouse vocals from JerVae Anthony. But the literal-minded songs disrupt the music and rhythm of Wilson ’s poetic prose. Still, this is a stirring production of a thrilling play.
In this season of good will and giving thanks, revisit an era of American history. You’ll look at your own life a little differently.
“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” Runs Through December 4 at the Potiker Theatre on the Campus of UCSD.
“ Storyville ” continues at the San Diego Repertory Theatre through December 12.
©2010 PAT LAUNER