February is black history month, so what better time to catch up with black playwrights, performers and artists? Throughout the winter months, New York and regional theatres will offer programs and performances specially designed to showcase black artists' contribution to the theatrical form.
On Broadway, Bring In `Da Noise, Bring In `Da Funk recounts black American history through the evolution of tap dance, moving from slaveships to Chicago nightlife to an urban landscape where taxicabs still won't stop for dark-skinned men. Black performers are also showcased in Smokey Joe's Cafe, an integrated revue of r&b songs by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.
Off-Broadway, A Brief History Of White Music has reopened the Village Gate, now in midtown. The concept behind this cabaret is having black performers reinterpret songs made popular by white artists of the 1950s and 60s. It's a kind of reverse-spin on the early careers of such cover artists as Pat Boone and Elvis Presley, who sold records to white audiences unwilling to listen to the original black artists (whose recordings were banned from most radio stations).
Coming to NY's Beacon Theatre is the show that asks the question, "What would happen if a young psychiatrist falls in love with his somewhat older female patient -- and they get married?" Promising to "elevate the natural friction in a male-female relationship to dizzying heights," with musical numbers that "ignite the potential powder keg into an explosion of stage wizardry," The Sequel: It Ain't Over stars Millie Jackson and Antonio Fargas and continues the story of Jackson's hit, Young Man, Older Woman.
Written by Doug and Helen Smith, the show is a star vehicle for Jackson, who toured with Young Man to 43 sold-out cities. Jackson's first hit single, "It Hurts So Good," was featured in the film Cleopatra Jones, and her albums have included "Get It Out Cha System;" "Uncensored, For Men Only" and "A Little Bit Country." Antonio Fargas, best known for playing "Huggie Bear" on TV's "Starsky & Hutch," has acted on Broadway in Playboy Of The West Indies and Ain't Supposed To Die A Natural Death. Appearing with Jackson in Sequel are her own daughter, Keisha Jackson, Douglas Knyght-Smith, Stephan Curtis, and Ray, Goodman & Brown. This world-premiere musical takes the Beacon Stage Jan. 21-Feb. 16.
Opening Jan. 9 at Manhattan Theatre Club is Neat, a one-woman show starring Charlayne Woodard (1993's Pretty Fire). This autobiographical piece, directed by Tazewell Thompson, traces Woodard's 1960s adolescence, "shaped by the forces of family, race and religion."
Also coming up is the 20th anniversary production of Do Lord Remember Me, a play with music based on first-hand testimony of black men and women born into bondage in ante-bellum America. This celebration of the black experience begins previews Jan.15 at the Sylvia & Danny Kaye Playhouse on 68th St. (Barbara Montgomery stars, replacing the previously announced Esther "Good Times" Rolle.)
"Come and experience the power of black music" reads the blurb for Satan Never Sleeps, a musical running Jan. 31-March 2 at the National Black Theatre on 125th St. in Harlem. For tickets to Ronald Wyche's show, a musical story of "Love, Trust and the Power Of Faith," call (212) 722-3800.
Foundry Theatre, producers of 1995's Obie-winning Deviant Craft, return Jan. 15-Feb. 9 with You Say What I Mean But What You Mean Is Not What I Said, a "Hot Mouth" Experience directed by Talvin Wilks. Hot Mouth refers to the a cappella singing used in the piece, which mixes traditional American folk songs and high minstrel show style and ranges from field hollers to funk, from country to jazz.
This "theatrical mosaic of sound" is conceived and composed by Grisha Coleman, an alumnus of the performance group Urban Bush Women. She's worked with Bill T. Jones, Spike Lee and Ntozake Shange. You Say What I Mean... plays at the Classic Stage Company space on East 13th St. and stars Helga Davis, Ching Gonzalez, Ezra Knight and David Thomson.
Regionally, the McCarter Theatre of Princeton, NJ, will offer a repertory triple bill of Having Our Say, John Henry Redwood's The Old Settler, and Avery Brooks' solo as Paul Robeson. Emily Mann's Broadway hit started at the McCarter, and the national tour, starring Lizan Mitchell and Micki Grant, will play there Jan. 22-23. Brooks' show, written by Phillip Hayes Dean, has played on Broadway and at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival. Co-starring Ernie Scott on piano, Paul Robeson traces the life of the great actor/singer, legendary for his appearance in the original Show Boat, his international success, and his outspoken political views. The show plays Jan. 19 only. Walter Dallas will direct The Old Settler (Feb. 4-23), which looks affectionately at two middle-aged sisters in 1940s Harlem, whose relationship is put to the test when a young male boarder comes to call.
Having Our Say may be the season's most ubiquitous play, and it'll turn up at Actors Theatre Of Louisville, Jan. 29-March 8. The aforementioned Tazewell Thompson directs Crystal Laws Green (Sadie) and Shona Tucker (Bessie) in this staging, which is not connected to the Broadway national tour.
ATL is doing quite a bit to celebrate African-American History Month, including the third annual African-American Art Exhibition (Jan. 29-March 8), a read-in for local writers, (Feb. 2), and the Non-traditional Touring Theatre of Louisville workshop of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (Feb. 2). In a related event, storyteller Ashi El Eruoa-Bey will read from Having Our Say, the book, at the Cathedral of the Assumption, Jan. 29 and Feb. 8 at various locations in Louisville. For more information about all these ATL celebrations, call (502) 584-1205.
Having Our Say will also play at Houston's Alley Theatre (Jan. 10 Feb. 8), where it will be directed by Roberta Levitow and star Vinie Burrows and Delores Mitchell. Alley's staging begins their "Celebration Series" of four African-American plays, a co-production with the Ensemble Theatre.
Also comprising the Celebration are Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, written and performed by Anna Deveare Smith (Jan. 21-26) at the Cullen Theatre; August Wilson's Two Trains Running coming up at the Ensemble April 17-June 1, and Who Killed Hazelpatton?, by Carl Anderson (aka George Hawkins), June 26-Aug. 10. Series tickets are $70 for all four shows.
Indiana Repertory is offering two shows to celebrate the black experience. The first, Sheldon Epps' revue, Blues In The Night (Jan. 17-Feb. 8), offers such blues and jazz standards as "Rough And Ready Man" and "Stompin' At The Savoy." The second is a special presentation by Connie Oates called "I Am Somebody: Exploring African American Women In History." Oates will play Harriet Tubman, Mme. C.J. Walker (the first black woman millionnaire -- she made her fortune marketing beauty products for black women), and Ida B. Wells Barnett, a journalist who raised a national outcry against lynching. Oates' "kaleidoscopic journey through the swirling mists of history" will run Feb. 1-22.
Author Phillip Hayes Dean will direct his own play, Paul Robeson at PA's Bristol Riverside Theatre. P.L. Brown stars as the controversial renaissance man, Robeson, who was a valedictorian at Rutgers, a football All-American, a Columbia law school graduate, an actor and, of course, a singer, most famous for introducing the world to "Ol' Man River" in Show Boat. Dean won the Drama Desk Award for The Sty Of The Blind Pig at the Negro Ensemble Company.
Paul Robeson, specifically staged "to honor and give recognition to an African-American pioneer during Black History Month," plays Jan. 28-Feb. 16.
"Celebrate! Black History `97 - Inspirations...Motivations...Heroes," will be the theme of Stamford Center For The Arts' second annual history month tribute. Their line-up begins with (of course) Having Our Say (the national tour) Jan 21. Feb. 5 will bring The Color Of Justice, a drama for young people about supreme court Justice, Thurgood Marshall.
Peabo Bryson and Lynette Hawkins will then star in the Tony-winning musical Raisin, based on Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin In The Sun. This examination of a black family on Chicago's southside plays at the Palace Theatre, Feb. 7. The following night, the Perry Players will offer the comedy, One Monkey Don't Stop No Show. On an even more radical front, Aloud!, an evening of poetry, rap, song and comedy, featuring music by Deep Banana Blackout, bursts out Feb. 15.
The Stamford event closes in big style with Martha & The Vandellas appearing in Ain't Misbehavin', the Tony, Drama Desk and Obie winning musical revue based on the songs of Fats Waller. Evoking the flavor of a Harlem nightclub in the 1930s, Ain't Misbehavin' plays Feb. 25-March 2. For tickets and information on all Stamford Center events, call (203) 325-4466.
At Kansas City's Unicorn Theatre, Angela Bates-Tomkins will present Women Of Nicodemus, a historical dramatization of the lives of African-American women on the Western frontier. Bates-Tomkins, president of the Nicodemus Historical Society, will be in full period dress as she discusses figures in her life, from Stagecoach Mary Fields to her great grandmother, Emma Williams.
Nicodemus plays at the Unicorn Jan. 28, smack in the middle of the theatre's run of Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West (Jan. 22-Feb. 9) Long Beach, CA's International City Theatre will inaugurate its own 1997 season with the L.A. premiere of Cleage's drama, which concerns black women homesteaders at the turn of this century. . Running Jan. 17 Feb. 23, West will be directed by ICT artistic director, Shashin Desai.
In Sacramento, the National Black Touring Circuit's production of God's Trombones will play on the campus of Cal State University, Jan. 11 19. Directed by Woodie King, Jr., founder and producing director of NYC's New Federal Theatre, God's Trombones is a gospel musical adaptation based on the 1926 book of spiritual and poetic sermons by James Weldon Johnson. The cast will include four preachers and a gospel choir. (The title, "God's Trombones," refers metaphorically to preachers, whom Johnson felt were "unified and inspired, and gave direction, dignity and comfort to the black community.")
In preparation for the production, King, will offer a lecture on Contemporary Black Theatre, Jan. 9, at Sacramento Rep. The night before, King will offer a Master Class overview of Black Theatre Production at Celebration Arts on D Street. The Class is part of Sacramento Light Opera's Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Project.
At the Kennedy Center, an "African Odyssey" is planned (March 31-May 25), featuring Johannesburg's Junction Avenue Theatre Company performing Marabi, a musical theatre piece about the formative years (1935) of urban South African history. Marabi combines township jazz, a cappella song and flamboyant dance. Also on hand from South Africa will be the Handspring Puppet Company performing Faustus In Africa. From the Ivory Coast will come a 30-member music/theatre troupe, Ki Yi M'Bock, and from Mali the storyteller (griot) Alhaji Papa Susso telling the tale of Sudiata, The Lion King Of Mali.
At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre, Fugard's recent drama, Valley Song will be performed and directed by the playwright. A co-production of the Mark Taper Forum, Valley Song tells of a young girl who dreams of a better life in the big city -- and the grandfather who can't let her go. For information on all Kennedy Center African Odyssey events, which also include a Women In Jazz Festival, art exhibitions and concert events, call (202) 467-4600.
--By David Lefkowitz