THE BASICS: Five singer/actors and four musicians present 18 blues songs at the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue, through October 12th Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 4:00 with audience TalkBack (last Sunday October 12th is sold out), runtime one hour twenty minutes without intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Similar in concept to “Jersey Boys” or “Mamma Mia” (taking a number of established songs and retro-fitting them into a plot) “Shake Em On Down” presents 18 blues songs, mostly it seemed from the early part of the 20th century. Set in a deep-south (Spanish moss hangs from the trees) juke joint, this presentation is described on the AACC mailer as “A woman’s quest to find answers in an age-old place of shadowy figures and mystery.” The voices are all strong, the band is tight, the set is ultra-realistic, and for people who may think that pop music took a wrong turn somewhere during their lives, this is a real “get back to your roots” feel-good evening.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:
Writing under the pseudonym “R. Skye Kamiyo,” it seemed clear that Director Mary Craig ( who plays “Mary”) created this show to showcase the considerable talents of Paul Robeson Theatre regulars, to the point of naming each of the characters by the actor, so that Falisha Young plays “Falisha,” the girl in need of wise counsel from her more experienced friends; Juanita Simmons plays “Juanita” who brings Falisha to the juke joint which is, of course, where common sense prevails; Mary Craig plays “Mary,” the owner of the bar; and Charles Everhart (“Charles”) and Chalma Warmley (“Chalma”) play the two male patrons at the joint. The women often refer to, point to, or roll their eyes towards the men as if they were the “bad examples,” but the men have their turn at explaining themselves as well as giving advice.
It’s all done with good humor and even a little (very mild by contemporary standards) audience participation. Still, my rule these days is “If you don’t want to be part of the show, then don’t seat yourself in the front row.” The actors are all old hands, there is never an awkward moment, and things move right along (it’s only 80 minutes long).
While Mary has the strongest voice and the most stage presence (she is truly a force of nature) and Chalma’s more reedy voice was often drowned out by the band, the evening was well balanced. The song list is arranged as follows: First Movement: “Cheating,” Second Movement: “Sad and Confused;” Third: “Awareness and Recovery,” and Fourth: “Shake Em Up, turn It Around and Shake Em On Down!” As you can see, there is the intent of a sort of a theatrical arc, although it didn’t come across.
The plot is either nonexistent, or at best paper thin, but in truth this is billed as “A New Blues Opera.” Having seen dozens and dozens of traditional operas, I must say that lack of a good, compelling, or believable plot never slowed down the likes of Mozart or Wagner, so we can’t complain too much about that.
And, actually, what is an “opera?” According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, an opera is “a staged drama set to music in its entirety, made up of vocal pieces with instrumental accompaniment… in some operas the music is continuous throughout an act; in others it is broken up into discrete pieces, or ‘numbers,’ separated either by recitative (a dramatic type of singing that approaches speech) or by spoken dialogue.” So it’s an opera. Let’s move on.
When did “the blues” begin? As the AACC flyer says: “in an age-old place of shadowy figures and mystery.” But music historians say that it was probably in the American south towards the end of the 19th century. The first national use of the word was in W.C. Handy’s 1914 “St. Louis Blues” (not in the show as is “Careless Love” which the program attributes to Handy). Most of the music in the show comes from traditional blues, Ragtime, Tin-Pan Alley, some Broadway, and from 32 different composers and lyricists such as J. Russel Robinson (born in Indianapolis in 1892), Harry Armstrong, Doris Fisher, and on up to Marcia Ball (born in Texas in 1949) and even a song “The One Who Isn’t Me” attributed to Craig (Mary Craig?). Quite an impressive array.
No mention was made of the fact that this year is the centennial of the start of World War I. Many arts organizations (for example Music Niagara this summer or the New Phoenix Theatre this month with “All Quiet on the Western Front”) have programmed their season to observe this. Students of history might enjoy this angle and a chance to hear music that could have been enjoyed by our troops “over there.”
Since the centennial observation will go on for several more years, perhaps we could see similar operas dealing with the effect of WWI on African Americans. An opera about “The Great Migration” from south to north might blend rural blues with big city / Chicago blues. Another opera could deal with African Americans forced to serve in segregated military units (an enduring national shame).
But enough about what could be. Getting back to what is, kudos to Scenic Designer David Stock, Scenic Painter Kim Cruce, and Set Construction by James Harris. From the moss hanging from the trees, the battered furniture, to the rickety bar you could tell that this set was made with love and attention to detail. The four man band was excellent, but in particular the drummer, Abdul R. Qadir, really stood out.
I have only three quibbles with the show. As mentioned, Chalma’s voice could have been a little louder (or the band quieter) and a tad more dialog could have been written to flesh out the story, such as it was. My bigger problem is that it lacked variety. True, each singer/actor was distinctive in voice and style and character, but there was solo after solo and even though there was one duet, one quartet, and one quintet, the structure of one singer after another after another, on the same set, in basically the same situation didn’t provide enough variety. Before her next opera (and I hope that there are many more to come) perhaps R. Skye Kamiyo could revisit the “Song Lists” of the operatic masters as well as recent Broadway hits and come up with a pattern so that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!
*Coming up next at the Paul Robeson Theatre will be “Bitch” by Datra Martindale & Kim Williams. “Bitch” – an insight into the word through monologues and vignettes – runs November 7th through November 30th.