From U Street to the Cotton Club

“Take the A-Train” from DC’s thriving music scene on U St. to the roaring nightlife of the most famous of Harlem clubs — from the revolutionary home of the True Reformers to New York’s famed Cotton Club – this joint will most definitely be jumpin’! Playwright Sybil Williams brings us stories of courageous people in turbulent times, told in a musical journey across immortal songs from gospel to the jazz age: songs by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, others.

In old-time theatrical traditions, theater was not only a business but a family affair. I am reminded of this when KenYatta Rogers stepped up to direct three members of his family – wife (Michelle,) son (Kesai,) and daughter third grader daughter (Mecca) and other gathered “family.” The performers of songs and dances in From U Street to the Cotton Club take us on a journey from DC to Harlem and beyond and back home again.

Questions:

  • What was a song that was most memorable for you in the list of so many old time “hits” that came our way? And why did that song jump out at you?
  • The songs and music of the period are knit together by a narrator in the character if Lena. How did the writer, Sybil R. Williams, want us to view this narrator’s story, and in what ways was she successful or not?
  • In the space created, how did the humble elements of staging and production create an opportunity to experience a theatrical reality of “we the people… carrying the cares and loves and hopes and dreams of our past and delivering them to our children”?

5 comments on “From U Street to the Cotton Club”

  1. Ilene Citrin Reply

    “Fom U Street to the Cotton Club” whet my appetite to hear more music from that era. I saw “Ain’t Misbehavi” (musical revue) at signature theater last night and highly recommend it. I thought the male performers were particularly exceptional, 3 people whose careers I plan to keep an eye on: Mark Meadows (phenomenal musician, also teaches at American University), Solomon Parker (spectacular dancer and tremendous connection with the audience),, snd Kevin McCallistet (powerful vocals and terrific stage presence). A couple of the women had lovely voices, the Men were much more charismatic and drew us in in s way the women did not

  2. Susan Greif Reply

    I don’t have responses to all the questions but two general opinions:
    My favorite song rendition was “Brother Can you Spare a Dime.” I liked the simplicity. Simple lighting, minimal accompaniment, emphasis on the singer and the message. I even wondered if the background unemployed people were necessary. The singer and the song seemed able to do the entire job.
    Overall, I thought this was a very fine venue for this type/size of show. I didn’t feel as overwhelmed by the music and complicated staging that I reacted to in Aida. Didn’t feel crowded.

  3. Catherine Lincoln Reply

    Q 1: So many songs were outstanding that I can’t choose just one! Greg was terrific both in delivery and movement/dance in the ring shout “Run Old Jeremiah”, in “Walkin’ Blues”, and Fats Waller’s “The Joint is Jumpin'” (vibrant elegance of Harlem in his great top hat work). Brian especially stood out with Mini the Moocher” (take that, Cab Calloway) and a searingly poignant “Brother, Can you Spare A dime.” Pam gave us a wonderful “I Got It Bad” and Fats’ “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and Detra was lovely with Sentimental Mood” and “Sophisticated Lady.” And my favorite “Take the A Train” was a great ensemble of celebrating strap-hangers.
    Q2 The story line of Lina’s career from Washington to Harlem to Paris and back held the music together, but it didn’t leave much time for details on the musical scenes in each place.
    Q3 The production succeeded in conveying quickly and efficiently the essence of each scene, with minimal props and costume changes. The underlying theme of continuity through the generations was nicely delivered through Lina’s own children, especially her daughter Mecca, about 8 years old and already talented!

  4. Jim Turner Reply

    Q1. Cab Calloway’s Hi Di Ho got to the audience; created a real feel of live experience back then; connected then to now in a cultural expression.
    Q2. The timeline—1909 to 2018 — stayed with me from beginning to end. The journal, Lena the narrator, and the children framed the story, animated by the music, and rooted the relationship of the past with now to that moment in the attic. She successfully tied Black Broadway, Harlem, inner life, outward reaching and living black experience into a piece expressed by musical lives which I see as her intent.
    Q3. Brilliantly. The sparse and yet overflowing stage attic allowed, propelled, the performers to something more than performing…it lifted them into the reality of life as actual people. It reinforced my sense of these folks–the ones being portrayed—as living human beings making a living…making a life.

  5. Marianne Soponis Reply

    The “Joint was indeed jumpin” with the collection of songs, dancing and togetherness in “From U Street to the Cotton Club”! The attic setting with opened trunk and diary set the scene for looking back and reliving Lena’s life. The ensemble moved seamlessly from song to song, dance to dance, in and out of the stage — made me wonder how long they had worked together to seem so at ease…

    Using Lena as a story teller was effective although I wondered at first why she wasn’t singing. I guess it was to focus more on the story she had to tell which might have been diluted if she drifted off into song…

    I find it difficult to choose from the many memorable performances but I’ve chosen three: Greg’s touching delivery of “Honeysuckle Rose” which showed the sweetness of relationships; Brian’s rendition of “Minnie the Moocher” which allowed all of us to join in the fun refrain; and Detra’s sweet voice singing “In a Sentimental Mood” to highlight the effect of gentleness in love. Can I mention the dancing? Everyone managed to move and groove on the small stage and take us back to memorable moments!

    The timeline listed in the program was helpful in following the show’s story; the Writer’s Note page set the stage. It tells the story of African American life through the music of the times. I loved the show, learned more and left humming!

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