There'll be a hot time one mo' time at the Longacre Theatre on Toulouse Street - uh, sorry, W. 48th Street - in the old town tonight. And tomorrow night. And the night after that. "You know," says Vernel Bagneris, "in essence we've been in previews for 20 years."
Actually 23 years, to go all the way back to the 1978 birth of One Mo' Time at the Toulouse Theater on Toulouse Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. From there, this vibrant, pulsating reincarnation of black vaudeville of the 1920's - conceived, written, directed by and co-starring Bagneris as its Papa Du - leaped in 1979 to Art D'Lugoff's Village Gate on Bleecker Street, where it ragged the tiger for three and a half SRO Off-Broadway years. Seven touring companies would in turn play London (including a command performance for Queen Elizabeth), countless other European cities, Melbourne, Sydney and across the U.S., while the original continued at the Toulouse till the mid-eighties.
"We started at the Toulouse for one night only," says creator Bagneris. "I had to convince the guy [the theatre manager] to let us do that one show."
The One Mo' Time that has now reached Broadway gets to New York by way of the Williamstown [Mass.] Theatre Festival, where it put in a hit limited run this past summer.
In January 2001 Bagneris received a call from Williamstown (and Broadway) producer Michael Ritchie. "I've known Michael," says our tall, slim, willowy, balding, gracious Papa Du, "since he had his first job in New York, as follow-spot operator on One Mo' Time at the Gate. That's when he was 26. We'd only occasionally been in touch since then, but now he said he'd been listening to the One Mo' Time cast album, that he thought the show should have another life, and would I be interested? Well, I said yes." Ritchie is not the only link over the years. "Toni Leslie-James, our costumer, was an usher at the Gate. John McKernon, who does the lighting, has done it for our other shows." And then there is then-as-now musical director Orange Kellin.
Vernel Bagneris (it's a Creole name, pronounced Bonna-reese) came out of Xavier University in 1972 with a double-BA in English Lit and Theatre. He took himself to Amsterdam to study the antiestablishment disciplines ("exercises and stuff") of director Jerzy Grotowski; ran out of money; came home to New Orleans to work (alongside his dad) in the post office to raise money to go back to Amsterdam; went back, ran out of money, came home to work in the post office to . . . "did that three times, and then finally came back to New Orleans to start the New Experience Players," a racially integrated avant-garde company that wrestled with Ionesco, Genet, Beckett.
"Orange Kellin was this Swedish guy I met in New Orleans in my twenties. As a young kid I was more into Diana Ross and Ray Charles than Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. When you live in the forest you sometimes don't see the trees very well. Kellin showed me tapes of the great old musicians and took me to hear a lot of people who were still working at Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street. One old guy there, Earl Humphrey, told me how he'd lost his clarinet in a fire at the Lyric Theater in 1927. The general belief of the talent at the Lyric was that the theatre owner had burned down the place on purpose so he wouldn't have to pay them. I started writing a piece that I felt would have the improvisational feel of what I was doing [with the New Experience Players] but dealing with the historical figures of jazz" - placing it all in 1926 in the Lyric Theater, at the corner of Iberville and Burgundy, where Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters and all the other great stars of the T.O.B.A. (Theater Owners' Booking Agency, or "Tough on Black Asses") circuit would set the nights on fire until the Lyric itself went up in flames.
"Our original cast was comprised of two gospel singers, one actor, one actress and me." The present foursome - Rosalind Brown, B.J. Crosby, Wally Dunn, Roz Ryan - are Broadway, Off-Broadway and TV pros, as, of course, is Mr. Bagneris, who between One Mo's has starred on Broadway in Cy Coleman's The Life and his own Jelly Roll!, and on the screen in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and Herbert Ross's Pennies from Heaven. The "New Orleans Blues Serenaders" are John Brunious (trumpet), Conal Fowkes (piano), Walter Payton (tuba), Kenneth Sara (drums) and Orange Kellin (clarinet).
Bagneris still feels "a hole" left by the death of his father Lawrence Bagneris three years ago. "He and my mother" - Gloria Diaz Bagneris - "raised us kids and were in love the whole time, the whole 56 years. They were two kids who raised kids - good sweet parents who even in time of segregation made us believe we were precious." A pause. "I remember first seeing black and white water fountains. I stood there, wondering what white water tasted like. Was it sweeter?"
Back in New Orleans in 1978, One Mo' Time had hardly opened at the Toulouse when people started coming down from New York. "James Baldwin came down. Allen Ginsberg came down. Tennessee Williams saw the musical five times and took pictures. Then Art D'Lugoff and his brother Burt came down. They took a look and said: 'We want the show, we want the costumes, we want the posters, just move it whole hog into the Gate.'
"You know," says Vernel Bagneris, "early on, I felt like a boy in a man's suit. This time around, I feel I've filled out the suit - and the suit's even a little older." But no less dedicated, no less artful, no less spirited.