BWW Review: World Premiere of THE UNBLEACHED AMERICAN at Stoneham Theatre
The Unbleached American
Written by Michael Aman, Directed by Weylin Symes; Scenic Design, Katy Monthei; Costume Design, Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design, John Eckert; Sound Design, David Remedios; Props Master, Georgina Kayes; Production Stage Manager, Margaret Kayes
CAST: Johnny Lee Davenport, Laura Latreille
Performances through April 27 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org
The Unbleached American tells an important story about a long forgotten African American musical innovator who attained unlikely levels of success before tumbling into infamy. The Stoneham Theatre presents the world premiere of Michael Aman's play about Ernest Hogan, the "father of ragtime," which imagines his relationship with an Irish immigrant nurse charged with caring for him in the final months of his life at the turn of the 20th century. It reveals a piece of American history as it tells a love story about two people tormented by their regrets.
Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes directs Johnny Lee Davenport (in his Stoneham Theatre debut) as the larger-than-life musical and comic vaudeville performer who owed the large part of his fame and fortune to an original song titled "All Coons look Alike to Me." His body afflicted with tuberculosis, Hogan is racked with guilt that his silly, big hit unintentionally spawned a spate of racist imitators who took the minstrel tradition to a more degrading intensity with coon songs. Laura Latreille plays Sharon Flynn, the down-to-earth woman from a hardscrabble upbringing whose memories of tending to her late father, a black-face minstrel, are triggered by her current employment.
Over the course of ninety minutes, the relationship between Hogan and Sharon goes from warily setting up boundaries to getting to know each other, from sharing their love of whiskey and love of performing to recognizing the deep wounds they have in common, and finally acknowledging their attraction as the strange and wonderful antidote to their pain. He was the first African American to perform on Broadway, was widely popular, and had more wealth than imaginable, but his guilt and his illness are all-consuming. She is an unfulfilled performer whose talent was sacrificed to the burden of family, but he understands and appreciates her gifts.
Ultimately, they fall in love, but The Unbleached American feels like an extended scene that takes too long to get where we know it's going. Granted, there is a passel of entertainment along the way with ragtime music, the duo high-stepping, and a couple of vaudeville sketches that include Davenport donning a dress and mimicking a high-pitched feminine voice, but Aman is proffering a play, not a revue, and his reach is wider than it is deep. His characters are interesting people who we care about and the actors bring them fully alive with unflinching performances, showing their flaws as well as their strengths, their humor as well as their sorrow. Although there isn't a lot of action, Symes creates some fluidity with his blocking and Davenport's antics when Hogan performs for Sharon, augmented by subtle lighting changes by designer John Eckert.
Katy Monthei's imaginative scenic design for the parlor of Hogan's New York City town house puts music front and center with a piano and a gramophone taking up about a third of the stage, and vertical streamers of illuminated sheet music hanging from the rigging on both sides of the set. Numerous framed posters on the walls and a costume trunk are testaments to Hogan's career, while he often reposes on a chaise longue center stage. Costume Designer Elisabetta Polito crafts a stark contrast between the characters by dressing Hogan in colorful satin sheen lounging pajamas and Sharon in a somber black uniform. Sound Designer David Remedios makes a vital contribution to the authenticity of the ragtime music coming from both the piano and the gramophone, and he and Eckert find just the right effects to emulate the flash from Hogan's box camera.
The Unbleached American is an opportunity to learn about an important figure in an era when racism was accepted as a style of entertainment, yet interracial relationships were considered shocking. It is definitely a story worth telling, but in its present state, it feels unfinished.