Tuesday was opening night for many of the productions at the National Black Theatre Festival held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 8 p.m., curtains went up for a total of 11 shows. I attended, Ghost Cafe, -- not just to see Andre De Shields play Jazz great Louis Armstrong and Avery Sommers portray Bessie Smith -- I also attended this particular play, for the presentation of honors g given to the artists of the day. Tuesday's artists were Stephanie Mills and Theresa Merritt (both from The Wiz).
Ghost Cafe is written by Jim Mirrione and De Shields, who also serves as director. The storyline tells of a Jazz Heaven for Jazz greats, when they die. The playwrights choose to focus on Smith and Armstrong and give each an entire act. There's also mention of Fat Woller.
Sommers has the first act called "Down Hearted Blues." The audience learns of Bessie's life from "Bessie." As she shares her experiences and pain, the stories are intermingled with nine of her songs including: "Second Fiddle," "Pigfoot," "Kitchen Man," "Squeeze Me," "St. Louis Blues," "Nobody Knows When You're Down and Out," "Down Hearted Blues," "Black and Blue" and "Stingy Jenny." Each song is set up by the preceding monologue. Sommers switches, shakes, shimmies and powerfully performs each number.
In Act II called, “West End Blues,” De Shields tells Armstrong's story in very honest and upfront monologues. He has his mannerism down from the all teeth smile and the sweating to the scat-singing. De Shields also performed nine numbers.
Of course, he begins with "When the Saints Go Marching In." His other songs are: "West End Blues," "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?," "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It," "Ain't Misbehavin,'" "'I'm Confessin,'" "Black and Blue," "You Rascal You," and the most memorable, "What A Wonderful World." De Shields and Sommers are accompanied by musicians: Terry Waldo (Piano, Conductor, Music Director), Cecil Bridgewater (Trumpet), Dan Levinson (Clarinet/Saxophone), David Grego (String Bass/Tuba), and Percy Brice (Drums).
After the performance, while the audience was still standing from the ovation given to this company -- Larry Leon Hamlin, (Founder and Producer of the Festival) went on stage. Hamlin presented the awards to Mills and Merritt and asked De Shields to join them on stage.
Since they were all in The Wiz (De Shields played The Wizard, Merritt the Wicked Witch and Mills was Dorothy) each of them sang a short part from their past roles. All in all, it was wonderful.
--By Linda Armstrong