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Joe Louis Blues
by Laura Hitchcock
Into the frayed flamboyant uncertainty of Vantyle Mayfield's 1940s Harlem jazz club steps a hero, a figure of hope -- Joe Louis, boxing champion of the world. He wants to hear the music of Sidney Bechet and Demas Dean but the focus of his attention immediately swivels to sultry songstress Leila Rivers. These five play out the themes of Oliver Mayer's many-layered play.
Leila, bursting with vim and vitriol, spurns the blues as singing about missing some no-good man and spurns Vantyle's advances with equal disdain. Young handsome Demas, however, is a different story. With a combination of rage and pain, she hears him urge her to say yes to Louis because he is her big chance.
Louis, a married man, sets her up in style for a while but the war and the financial corruption that robs a na´ve Louis of his earnings put an end to that and to his career. Mayer not only points up the financial chicanery imposed on men like Louis but stresses the conflicts inherent in fighting for a country that treats its citizens like this.
Leila finally gets a gig singing at a club owned by a white man named Barney, who refuses to let her sing "Sleepy Time Down South" because it's racist. Finally she agrees to sing a blues song and smile, and winds up trying to bleach her skin several shades lighter, a la Michael Jackson. The biggest laugh from the largely African-American opening night audience in West Hollywood came when she declared that if she were a few shades lighter and she might be cast as Mexican.
Although Mayer's play uses Louis as its symbol and central character, it's the African-American community of the era, whose lives he inspires and affects, that embodies the real subject of his story. In many ways Vantyle seems to represent them all. He's the struggling businessman, though not above fighting corruption with corruption. He opens and closes the show. Finally, having lost everything, when Leila comes back, beaten down and willing to do anything, he's the one who makes the choices. In some respects he's reminiscent of Lily Bart's Jewish suitor in The House of Mirth who rejects her when she loses her status. Maybe he's the healer who tells it like it is.
Due to a last-minute cast substitution ten days before opening, the production had not quite jelled opening night but the second act worked much better than the first and at a greatly improved pace. The tendency to give didactic lectures to Vantyle (Ellis E. Williams) and Bechet (Gregg Daniel) throws these scenes into sharp contrast with the sparse harsh spiky dialogue of Louis (Russell Hornsby) and Leila (Shelley Robertson). Williams and Daniel are fine actors but they're somewhat handicapped in those scenes. Sterling Macer, Jr., gives an almost manic energy to Demas Dean, leaving himself nowhere to go when the chips are really down. In the second act, we catch glimpses of the dignity and vulnerability Macer can bring to the character. Russell Hornsby as Louis and Robertson, with only ten days in the role of Leila, come off very well. Hornsby broadens his amazingly accurate depiction of the boxer's speech pattern and mannerism by catching both the limitations and the integrity of this historic figure. Robertson displays not only an arresting singing talent and the kind of sultry come-hither beauty that made film noir sirens unforgettable but a firm grasp on her character.
Barry Primus plays Barney, the white clubowner, with a carny's cynicism and versatile JD Cullum brings variety and authenticity to three roles: Louis's corrupt Accountant, a radio announcer, and Isaac, Barney's raffish piano man. The mute elegant figure of House, the pimp, is a definitive exclamation point of time and place. The dancing girls with their many costume changes and dance steps of the period bring an exuberance to the production that reinforces the vitality and optimism that underlay the sordid club.
L. Kenneth Richardson directs with a keen sense of pace. Hopefully, as the cast adjusts, the bugs will be worked out. Victoria Petrovich designed a set of colorful murals divided into scene locales by bead curtains of the time and place. Costume designer Tuesday Conner is welcome to my closet any time.
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