Thursday, June 30, 2022

Ain’t Misbehavin’ and B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching: Something About Race

Allison Blackwell, Jarvis B Manning Jr., Maiesha McQueen, Arnold Harper II and Anastacia McCleskey in Ain't Misbehavin'. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The 1978 revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ walked away with the Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Drama Desk Award and jump-started the careers of Nell Carter and Andre De Shields. It also introduced Fats Waller, composer and ragtime pianist, to a new generation of music lovers. Richard Maltby, Jr., who conceived the show and directed the original production, compiled Waller’s signature songs and some less recognizable ones in a tribute to the musical Harlem of the twenties, thirties and forties. I remember being startled by the number of tunes I already knew but had no idea Waller had written – often with Andy Razaf as lyricist. I could identify him as the composer of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “The Joint Is Jumpin’” and the title song, but I hadn’t associated him with “Squeeze Me” (lyrics by Clarence Williams), “I Got a Feeling I’m Falling” (co-written by Harry Link, with lyrics by Billy Rose), “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” or the iconic “Black and Blue,” the unforgettable Louis Armstrong cover of which plays a vital role in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a spirited show, and the version currently at Barrington Stage, directed and choreographed by Jeffrey L. Page on a spiffy bandstand set by Raul Abrego, is fast-moving and engaging. The five performers are very talented singers and dancers. The women are Allison Blackwell, Maiesha McQueen and Anastacia McClesky; the men are Arnold Harper II and Jarvis B. Manning. McQueen is a fine jazz singer with an exuberant, expansive presence who makes a strong early impression in “Honeysuckle Rose” (with Harper) and “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling.” In the first act Blackwell and McClesky seem to lean more on technique than on interpretation – particularly Blackwell, who has a beautiful soprano and the most obvious classical training. But in act two both these ladies sink happily into the material and their readings of the songs become more robust (also funnier). Harper, an outsize dude with a wonderful, burnt-caramel bass voice, is sensational – sensuous and sly on “Honeysuckle Rose,” hilarious on “Your Feet’s Too Big.” The only one of the quintet about whom I had reservations was Manning, though he’s the best dancer. He inherited the song that brought down the house on Broadway in 1978, “The Viper’s Drag/The Reefer Song” (“I dreamed about a reefer five feet long”), which might have the same effect at Barrington Stage if he worked less hard and relaxed his facial muscles.

A short essay in the playbill tells us, “Ain’t Misbehavin’ focuses on illustrating the toll of what wearing a performative mask does to Black people as they walk in the world.” Actually it does no such thing, except briefly at the top of the show and in “Black and Blue,” where the ensemble is directed to use smiling faces and jazz hands ironically – and I would say that the Brechtian commentary is stylistically misplaced and definitely unconvincing. Part of the problem with “Black and Blue” is Luther Henderson’s slowed-down, overstated arrangement, which drew too much attention to itself in the original production too. “Black and Blue” is a devastating ballad about race; it doesn’t require all this embellishment. Anyway, the lyric isn’t about performing for the pleasure of white people; it’s about the anguish of a Black man who can’t get the white world to look beneath his skin and recognize their common humanity.

It had been just long enough since I’d sat through a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ that some of the pleasures of the score had slipped my mind, like “Jitterbug Waltz” in the first act and “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” in the second. The musical direction is by Kwinton Gray, who also conducts the band – Kazunori Tanaka on trumpet, Phil Joseph on trombone, DeVaughn Durham and Jonathan Mones on reeds, Jackie Whitmill on percussion and KJ Gray on bass. Gray also plays piano; the pianist in any mounting of the show is intended to embody Fats Waller. (Costume designer Oana Botez has done a nice job with this notion.) These musicians are terrific.

Justin Sturgis and DeAnna Supplee in B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching. (Photo: Jacey Rae Russell)

Couldn’t anyone at Berkshire Theatre Group, where B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching is receiving its world premiere, talk the playwright, Tara L. Wilson Noth, into changing that awful title? If you aren’t familiar with the linguistic term “code-switching,” then you have to consult the note in your program to learn that it refers to the way people shift their affect depending on whom they’re interacting with – often, and specifically in this case, if they are Black and behave differently with whites and other Blacks. I’d say demanding that an audience read up beforehand in order to make sense of the title of your play is probably not a great idea. And even if we all just happen to walk in with that information in our brains, what the hell do birds have to do with it?  One of the characters recites the Langston Hughes poem “Dreams” – “Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly” – but throwing the word bird in the middle of the phrase turns it into nonsense. In any case, Noth’s play isn’t about code-switching, even though the material in the program makes it clear that she thinks it is, or intended it to be.

Forgive me for belaboring the problem with the title, but it’s indicative of the problem with the whole play. It’s a mess. Partly it’s about the disintegration of the marriage between the protagonist, Olivia (DeAnna Supplee), a lawyer who works with disadvantaged Black kids who have gotten themselves into legal difficulties, and Mark (Torsten Johnson), who works in finance. He’s white and she’s Black, and their opening dialogue, after they’ve sent home their white dinner guests – friends of his whom she has begun to find objectionable – hints at the way racial attitudes might have thrown a wedge between them. But in their last scene together, Noth makes it clear that the real reason they’ve  grown apart is that they lost a child and each resents the way the other has grieved that loss.

Most of the play doesn’t focus on the marriage but on the case that Olivia takes on, reluctantly at first. A sixteen-year-old boy named Deshawn (Justin Sturgis) has been charged with murdering the white man his mother (Almeria Campbell) worked for as his housekeeper. The mother, Evelyn, is sure that her boy couldn’t have done it, and though he is mostly uncommunicative and defiantly refuses to provide Olivia with enough info to mount an effective defense, she also comes to believe that he’s innocent. The other characters in this scenario are a photographer named Olen (Jahi Kearse) who has won the confidence of the family by taking photographs of Deshawn and who sleeps with Olivia. Their affair strikes up around the same time Mark starts having sex with Katherine (Rebecca L. Hargrove), who has recently joined the firm he works for. Noth offers Olen’s photographs as symbols: they allow his subjects to be seen. That idea might be more compelling if the story were about the inability of a white society to see who this Black kid really is, but it’s Deshawn who’s making an effort not to be seen by keeping the truth about the murder to himself.

If B.R.O.K.E.N code B.I.R.D switching sounds like two plays mashed up together, that’s how it feels when you watch it. It’s a series of ideas in search of a play, and even when they cross over from one plot to the other (Mark is sure that Olivia’s commitment to Deshawn’s case is a desperate attempt to save one young life because she was unable to save her daughter), the links don’t scan, either dramatically or psychologically. Moreover, the ideas have been explored in greater depth in other places. The tension between two people who are mourning the death of a child in different ways is the subject of the great Robert Frost poem “Home Burial,” and it shows up again in the relationship between the characters played by Barbara Hershey and Geoffrey Rush in the splendid 2001 Australian film Lantana. I figured out the hidden truth surrounding the killing of the white employer halfway through the play because I remembered the twist from at least two old Law & Order episodes. Noth doesn’t appear to have a clue about what she’s doing. She goes to a lot of trouble to draw Olen as a soulful man with an instinct for seeing what others miss, but then she turns around and suggests that he doesn’t care about his subjects at all – that he’s only using them, like Truman Capote in the movie Capote uses the young killer Perry Smith for his book In Cold Blood. A more glaring error in dramaturgy is that she neglects to put one of the most important characters in the plot on the stage at all, which is utterly baffling.

Considering that five of the six characters are Black and the play is about race, it’s unfortunate that the only actor who never engages in any scenery chewing is Johnson, in the role of Olivia’s white husband. The director, Kimille Howard, has allowed everyone else at least one scene in which he or she faces front and emotes. This is a clumsy production of a hopelessly confused script.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

No comments:

Post a Comment