BWW Review: The InSeries Revives FROM U STREET TO THE COTTON CLUB
They pipe street noise onto the stage as the latest production of InSeries opera company begins.
They needn't have. Performing at the Source Theater on 14th Street NW, near the epicenter of the cultural crossroads at hand, the revived production of "From U Street to the Cotton Club" is right at home in the neighborhood where Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday played storied places like the Crystal Caverns and the Howard and Lincoln theaters.
InSeries is well aware of the history all around; indeed, they run an optional walking tour before each show.
Sybil R Williams' musical play pays homage not only to D.C.'s jazz heritage, but inadvertently to a single family that has grown up with the various incarnations of the work (which has changed accordingly).
Young Kesai Rogers is now joined by his little sister Mecca Rogers as a pair of kids who get into their grandma's attic after a funeral and begin pulling out souvenirs of the city's jazz legacy. It sends their scolding mother (who is their actual mother) Michelle Rogers into a reverie bout the old days, accompanied by a four person Greek choir taking hold of iconic songs of the era, from gospel and blues to sophisticated jazz.
And it's all directed by the family patriarch, KenYatta Rogers.
Williams' book rises to the poetry of texts she quotes, from Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Clude McKay and georgia Douglas Johnson. But often they are just one line connecting one song to the next.
The fictional local entertainer in question Lena goes off to Harlem and the Cotton Club for wider fame, Taking the A train to end act one. And by act two, several showstoppers are strung in a row like pearls from the era, from Fats Waller's "The Joint is Jumpin'" and "Ain't Misbehaving'" to Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" and Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood."
It all marches along nicely from a trio led by musical director Stanley Thurston, wearing a straw boater at the upright piano as he plays along. It's about as far from opera as InSeries gets, but it's as true to D.C. to anything they've done, with soprano Detra Battle holding forth in both worlds with her operatic voice.
Tenor Brian Quenton Thorne and baritone Greg Watkins each have pleasing solo moments as well, particularly Thorne's crowd participating "Minnie."
But Pam Ward may be the standout of the group with rich tones in her turn as Bessie Smith to her work on Duke's "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)." And her flirty turn on "Ain't Misbehaving" is pure fun.
What could have been an entertaining revue of the early jazz age also includes pricklier parts of history, from the Depression that caused an end to that jazz era in Harlem to the lesser known riots of 1919 in cities across the U.S. and Washington, reacting to reinforced Jim Crow laws.
Set designer R. Scott Hengen adds a little magic with lighting designer Marianne Meadows, considering they are building from out of an attic to the most glamorous nightclubs and back. Like them, choreographer Angelisa Gillyard doesn't have a lot of room to work with. Money Kulemeka's costumes are classy with tails and top hats for the gents and flapper designs for the women.
"From U Street to the Cotton Club" has been received so warmly each time it's been presented, it may be a good candidate as one of those year-round plays you see at tourist spots nationwide, where local history is preserved and celebrated nightly, season after season. That way you could also see the talented Rogers family grow before your eyes.
Running time: One hour, 40 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.
Photo credit: Pam Ward and company. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.
"From U Street to the cotton Club" runs through Jan. 20 at Source Theater, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets at 202-204-7763 or online.